Article: The Age of Rope, Parts 1 and 2

November 16, 2021 by Department of Art History

Professor Christy Anderson recently published a two-part essay in Platform discussing rope and ropemaking.

In Part 1, Prof. Anderson focuses on Renaissance methods of ropemaking to provide a deeper understanding of maritime spaces in the early modern North Atlantic. Rope was often made from hemp, which needed first to be processed into long strands. Ropemaking was a necessity for many industries, not just maritime ones, and required a very distinctive form, seen in the ropewalk. The buildings, often found in ports, were very long and straight, allowing workers to continue creating massive ropes no matter the weather. After 1600, as countries expanded maritime trade and ships and navies increased in size, the need for rope was endless. In this week’s issue, Anderson walks Platform readers through the process of ropemaking, which is based on the twisting and counter twisting of multiple strands. In Part II, Anderson discusses how the architecture of the ropewalk reveals the process of making rope.

In Part 2, Prof. Anderson examines ropewalks in England and France from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, showing how their design shaped the ropemaking process. The ropewalk in Chatham, England was redesigned in 1780 as a series of fireproof stone structures, whose new organization, along with new machinery, allowed for a more seamless and fluid ropemaking method. Not every port enjoyed a stone ropewalk, however; given the expense and lack of flat land along many harbors, Anderson finds that many artisans laid out rope in the streets. In this way ropemaking not only shaped shipyards, but also left their mark on the urban fabric as long, straight streets still found in many port cities.

Read "The Age of Rope" by Prof. Anderson on Platform, a digital forum for conversations about buildings, spaces, and landscapes.