My ongoing love-affair with rope started out with natural fibers. When I was growing up we used solid-braid cotton line for just about any task that called for a rope: setting up canvas tarps while camping, tying down cargo on our station wagon’s roof rack, securing the canoe to a dock, making a makeshift jump rope or a lariat for playing cowboy, and, of course, tying up prisoners in the occasional pickup game of cops and robbers. The ubiquitous cotton line was soft, creamy white, bit like crazy into itself to hold knots well, and was cheap enough that I didn’t feel too bad if I had to cut it to free some cargo while unpacking in the rain after a road trip if my inexperienced hands had tied a Gopher Knot (as in go-for-your-knife) instead of a trucker’s hitch.

Because it was what I was familiar with and had on hand, braided cotton rope was what I first used when I began my explorations of consensual erotic bondage. In hindsight that was a stroke of luck. The cotton was soft and sensual, had a natural, organic feel, and because it held knots so easily it was a cinch to tie someone effectively with just the handful of simple knots I’d already learned while canoeing and camping. More importantly, the partners I explored rope bondage with liked the feel of the cotton rope a lot. And having them enjoy being bound was my entire motive for trying rope in the bedroom in the first place.

As rope became more and more a regular and gratifying part of my erotic play, I discovered new kinds of rope to fill the basket I kept handy under the bed. In the mid-eighties I ran into something called “super-soft-braided-nylon.” Big honkin’rope, half as wide as a wrist, with a very loose weave. It looked like the kind of decorative rope they use in museums to keep viewers from getting too close to an invaluable piece of art – only much softer and in a natural tan color. When I saw the rope on the spool at the Farm and Ranch Supply store where I was buying some anchor chain, I immediately knew I had to have some – it really fit my notion of rope sensuality at that time in my life. I had just starting seeing a new girlfriend, and we’d just about reached the point in our level of intimacy where it was time to have the so-have-you-ever-fantasized-about-being-tied-up conversation. I was pretty sure the idea of all those luxurious coils of soft rope around her body would appeal to her. I can still remember the clerk’s expression after he asked me how much of the rope I wanted and I replied, “Well, my four-poster is about 5 feet wide and 6 feet long – better give me 25 feet so I can go up and back and across at least twice.” His usual smile vanished into a studied blank face. He silently cut the specified length of rope and rang it up without a word. I was a regular customer, and up until that point this clerk had always been quite personable with me whenever I shopped at the store. After making my purchase that day all my subsequent interactions with him were noticeably subdued and perfunctory.

My girlfriend and I had a lot of naughty fun with that monster piece of rope. But it was really too big to do anything intricate with. After that I tried the 8mm solid-braid nylon from the local hardware store. The nylon had drawbacks: it was slick and didn’t hold knots very well, and it got stiff and unusable when I tried to boil it – but it was bright and shiny, making it fun for photographs, and it was cheap and readily available, and because it was just your run-of-the-mill rope I had plausible deniability if I was ever questioned about its presence under the bed (um, well, I like to practice tying knots when I can’t sleep, it relaxes me, and the cats love to play with it).

I was relatively happy using synthetic ropes for the damsel-in-distress and bedroom bondage I was doing back then until I eventually became interested in shibari. The Japanese bondage I saw on the internet really appealed to me visually and viscerally as a rigger. As I got into this style of tying the natural fiber ropes just seemed more in-keeping with the aesthetics of the Japanese-style tying that I saw, and they also just felt better in the hand, reminiscent of the cotton I’d started my bondage career with. In addition my synthetics ropes just seemed too slick for the simple twists and turns that lay at the heart of the tying techniques of shibari. So, like many American riggers emulating Japanese-style ties, I switched to 6mm hemp. As I fell even more under the spell of the rope bondage I saw from overseas I acquired some loose-lay jute, the traditional bondage rope used in Japan. I was quickly hooked. I loved the way jute felt and handled, so light and quick. I loved the way it flowed as I wove my partner into my coils. And I loved the way it looked, much sleeker than the fuzzier Romanian hemp rope I’d been using. But I had a partner whose skin was sensitive to jute and hemp, so I also bought some linen that was a joy to tie with, too. The linen really reminded me of the joy of tying with my old cotton ropes. Jute and linen became my ropes of choice for bondage and what I recommended to anyone asking who wanted to try shibari.

My synthetic ropes mostly made their way to the darkest corner of the closet, except for the length of rescue rope I used for setting high hardpoints and the token pieces of multifilament polypropylene I continued to use for tying dildo harnesses or crotch ropes. I still really liked how easy the synthetics were to clean, how strong they were, and how cheap they were if I simply decided to dispose of them after some particularly messy play, and they were still the ideal choice for fusion style tying when I wanted nice flat decorative and colorful knots. But personally I was leaning more and more towards the aesthetics of Japanese-style tying and when I thought about rope to add to my personal collection, synthetics just didn’t fit the bill anymore. I simply wanted the look and feel of natural ropes when I connected with my partners through bondage.

So I was a pretty much a re-born believer in natural rope when the first spools of “Synthetic Hemp” arrived at the Jade Rope U.S. warehouse (that would be the SW corner of my basement). Over the years I’d encountered some synthetic ropes that were touted as looking like hemp or manila. But their hand was usually atrocious, feeling more like old yellow water ski line than hemp, and they were far too slick to hold knots for shibari-style tying, or too bristly to be bound around the skin of any but the most masochistic rope bottom. So I was skeptical when I unpacked the new spools of synthetic hemp from the shipping crate. But not for long. To be honest, it didn’t really look like our hemp to my eye. It wasn’t nearly as fuzzy. It was made of worsted polyester in a classic 3-strand lay. Its tight, smooth twist looked more like polished jute or linen to my eye, a look I much prefer over hemp rope. But looks aren’t everything. I cut a short piece for a travel sample and was surprised by its almost natural hand. It was soft and supple, low stretch, and mighty strong (the 6mm specs out at 770 lb and the 8mm at over 1600 lb breaking strength). And unlike most synthetics, it held simple knots very nicely, though the burn speed was still noticeably slower than natural hemp or jute. That was a tradeoff I could easily live with. I immediately cut a length of the 6mm and two lengths of the 8mm and threw them into my rope bag along with my usual assortment of jute and linen.

linen, hemp, jute, and synthetic hemp ropes

Photo: from top to bottom - 6mm linen, raw hemp, raw tossa jute, and "synthetic hemp"

I’ve gotten a lot of use out of those lengths of synthetic hemp over the past 6 months. The 6mm is great for rope that will travel between the legs. It’s nice and soft and in photographs it looks almost like my favorite tossa jute. For cleaning I can just throw it in the wash or give it a simmer - unlike nylon, it can take the heat - and it has only fluffed up a bit after being through the wash several times, and it’s gotten softer in the process. And since it’s so cheap, I don’t hesitate to just give a length to a person I tie up if it ends up traversing rather personal territory on their body. The 8mm is a little oversized, more like 8.5+ by my measurement, and it has swollen a tad after some use, so it’s closer to 9mm before washing. I use it for critical hoist lines where I have no backup safety line – like inverted suspensions on a single tie-off line, or rigging hard points over tree limbs for photography – the synthetic hemp looks natural, is far more abrasion resistant over rough bark than natural ropes, cleans up easily if it gets muddy, and is strong enough I can trust it to hold a precious living load without hesitation.

 I’ve recommended our synthetic hemp to a few riggers who’ve loved it so much that they’ve outfitted an entire kit with the stuff. I’m not going to give up my beloved jute and linen. But it seems I’m back into synthetics again for a part of my rope kit. Though now I’m starting to eye some of the high-quality braided cotton Jade Rope carries – cotton rope that, unlike the old stuff I used to make do with some 30 years ago, is really well suited for bondage. I just read an interview with a famous bakushi from Japan who said that when it came to tying for connection in private he turned to cotton rope. After all these years forsaking cotton rope I’m realizing it still has a lot of enticing qualities: it’s soft, hypoallergenic, sensuous, and takes dyes like crazy. There’s a rope for every purpose, and I keep coming up with new purposes. So it seems I can never have enough rope. I may have to add some of that new braided cotton to my ever expanding collection just to bring me full circle to where I started on this journey.

synthetic hemp for a crotch rope

Photo: 6mm synthetic hemp that's been washed several times used for a crotch rope.