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My protagonist needs food from a village during times of a famine, and all she can offer (or pretend to offer) is spinning their animal hair to make rope (nobody else has those skills.) Is there a way that having more rope available would help them with their famine such that it's worth giving food over? This is a village in the middle of a forest.

I imagine certain hunting traps and fishing nets could use rope, but other than that, I'm at a loss.

The question: what uses could a rural village need for rope during times of famine to help with the food supply?

Thank you!

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    $\begingroup$ (1) Rope is twisted or braided, never spun. Yarn is spun. Then you braid the yarn to make rope. (2) Are there no women in the village? In pre-modern times, making textiles and such stuff was women's job, and all women knew how to -- from the queen down to the lowest scullery maid. (And of course many men also knew how to, but one can, with difficulty, imagine a village where all men were helpless.) (3) A rural village as opposed to an urban village? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 3 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ many villages are only accessible by rope bridges, it makes the villages very hard to attack., of course in such villages everyone knows how to make rope because you need that many people to make enough rope. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 3 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ What makes you think rope is only useful when there's plenty of food? Cordage is a basic survival requirement, nearly on par with fire. In fact, rope very well could be what the village needs to end the famine in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Aug 3 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane: I can't say in general in the entire world, but in Europe women spun thread and weaved cloth, and men most usually did not spin thread and weave cloth. (Except if their were professional spinners or weavers.) As I said, with difficulty one can imagine a village where all men were helpless in matters textile, but one cannot imagine a village where women didn't spin and weave. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 4 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ As AlexP said, a village where nobody knows how to make rope is just not believable. (Although RedSonja is also correct that unlike other fiber arts, ropemaking was traditionally a male task.) $\endgroup$
    – Martha
    Aug 4 at 14:50

8 Answers 8

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Rope is super useful for many things, at many technology levels, relating to procuring and preserving food:

  • Snare Traps rely on ropes for the snares
  • Fishing, either with nets or with a rod, will require string or rope to make the correct tools
  • Buildings, for food storage, may rely on ropes for lashing.
  • Smoking requires an enclosed space for the smoke to preserve food. Once again, rope comes to the rescue and provides material for lashing.
  • Rope can be used to make cord baskets, allowing people to gather more per trip.
  • Fencing and deer scares to fend off herbivores. Deer get a little freaked out when they get touched by something they don't see, and a thin rope could be that thing!

And I am sure there are more! Like making rope ladders to get high-up fruit, making a bow, starting fires (bow drill), measuring farmland/plots, trellises for climbing vines, and others...

I suggest looking at youtube channel "Primitive Technology" to see how much rope is used in various projects, including food projects, in a very low tech setting. As a bonus, this all takes place in an Australian forest!


FROM THE COMMENTS:

The comments have had yet more suggested uses or expand upon suggested uses. Lashings for boats/rafts (@Alexander the 1st) and harness for beasts of burden (@workerjoe) are two big ones.

In any case, I tried to keep my list as general as possible, making as few assumptions as possible about what kind of forest, what the climate is, what people eat, etc.

Obviously, the technology and climate of the forest village in question affects how they use rope, but the consensus is clearly that rope/cordage is very useful and important to pre-industrial-revolution hunting, gathering, trapping, and farming. (Even then, I bet a modern farmer can expound the virtues and usefulness of cordage!)

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    $\begingroup$ Cordage (general term for rope, string, twine, thread, etc.) is in contention with fire for "most important invention ever." $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Aug 3 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ “‘Rope!’ muttered Sam. ‘I knew I’d want it, if I hadn’t got it!’” $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Aug 3 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ To add to fishing, rafts made of logs and...rope might actually be particularly useful for fishing in a famine, if the fish are, for example, very rare and in the center of a lake, or needed to be fished in bulk. Which then adds rope anchors. In a similar vein, in a famine keeping the food tied close together during transport from farms to the rural village - so they can export the rope for that purpose in a pinch. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yep. Make the trees ridiculously tall and all the fruit/nuts only grow at the top and/or there are animals only accessible from the tree-tops that can be hunted. The rope is the only thing that allows them to do this safely and even then it's not worth it except in times of famine. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ @joebernstein IMHO it would need to be a very, very small village to not know how to make rope. As you may gather, it is pretty important, so likely a need that gets filled quickly. It's your word, though: maybe someone got injured or gone missing, perhaps the demand is too large, or some other extenuating circumstances. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Aug 8 at 15:52
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A village in a forest has many different foods available. A forest has many different types of food that can be collected including foods that normally would not be eaten but would be eaten in times of disasters. These include bark, insects, roots, normally poisonous plants that have to be processed a certain way to be safe, etc. The major reason that a village in a forest would be suffering from a lack of food is because of the tax man coming in and taking everything. In such a case, the best use of a rope would be to hang the tax man.

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    $\begingroup$ Wow, that's dark! $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Aug 3 at 16:33
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Make fiber.

Your spinner does not just make rope. She makes fibers. The ladies of the village use the fiber to make new clothes and clothes for their babies. The men use the fiber to make rope to lead animals, make traps and hang food up away from rodents as well as macrame mankinis which they wear for special nights out. The kids use the fiber to make cats cradles and toys including cat toys which had been sadly lacking. I use fiber from the fur of satisfied cats to make a sweet hat and add my entire feather collection to the hat, and give it as a gift to your character; it looks awesome on her.

Your character gets pretty chunky because she gets so much food from these villagers who love her spinning skills. That also looks awesome on her.

And she teaches some of the kids how it is done, because the story may compel her to move on from the village, sporting her hat and her new and very sheddy cat Proto ("Proto" because he generates the protohats).

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  • $\begingroup$ Awesome answer :) Can you find a picture on the interweb of what one "unit" of fiber looks like in your head? Everything I'm finding is either fiber-optics or about weaving yarn. $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBernstein - I picture a ball. Maybe the size of a softball? I know yarn and fibers comes in skeins and yanks and wads and stuff but "ball" is my goto. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 3 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ Roving is fiber that has been prepared for spinning, but has not been spun yet. It is relatively easy to make wool roving, but flax is quite a bit more difficult. $\endgroup$
    – Martha
    Aug 4 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ And they also use rope to hang various criminals. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Aug 4 at 16:38
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You need a rope to access water in deep wells with buckets.

Every little hamlet needs it and larger towns away from rivers have many wells. Wet well rope rots, so it has to be replaced regularly.

Famines are often caused by aridity, which causes the ground water table to drop, which means that rope that used to be long enough to drop buckets down wells to reach water are now too short. So, everyone needs more rope right now or they will die of thirst long before the famine itself kills them.

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The simplest solution is that the village can trade the rope with a client who needs large amounts of rope. The village itself has no need for rope, it needs food.

Your lady is just working like a subcontractor to fill part of a production line.

Eg, a ship builder will pay a bunch of cartloads of wheat for X fathoms of good quality rope. This lady knows how to make it while the village has the raw materials. The ship builder is not interested in the raw materials, just the finished product. Lot's of business is done this way right now.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ahhh, good idea, but the village's lack of rope stems from the fact that in good times, they trade with the neighboring rope-experts. However, the big ol' beasties prowl the woods and don't allow trade to happen. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ Makes no difference if they have a bunch of raw materials and a client they can supply rope. All it takes is the client and your protaganists expertise. Protaganist can even find the client for them and talk them into it and collect food and money from both ends Business 101 for many products. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Aug 4 at 9:13
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They have grain but thier gravity mill is broken. They can make flour by hands but it thake lots of time and effort. Mill works with some counterweights wich are in some kind of rope basket. That basket is rised by workers but need strong rope to do it. All ropes maked by locals arent strong enough. Give them rope and they can fix mill, make flour and Your character is Savior from famine.

  • they cant use windmil - i is forest
  • they cant use watermil - no river near
  • they have small/medium amount of grain from clearing farms
  • regular way is to send grain to water/wind mil but it is 50 miles trip and last one was robed by bandits.
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Make bowstrings of them. It gets used to make bows. Bows can be used for hunting. They can also be used for defending against any bandits who come to steal food from the village, and they can also be used offensively to attack other villages and loot their food. The same can be done with a sling. Weapons can be useful during a famine.

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Rope rots and burns

Others have pointed out the many, many uses of rope, and the fact that a village where no one knows how to make rope is somewhat unbelievable. So this is a bit of a frame challenge to the idea that the community only wants rope in famine, or for some reason wants extra rope to deal with the famine.

Instead, why might the famine have occurred? Two possible sources are floods and fires. A flood or fire could have destroyed the majority of the village's food supplies kept in common granaries, smokehouses, cellars, etc. If a substantial fraction of the village's rope were stored in the same place, it could also have been destroyed. If you want more widespread famine than flooding, you could imagine your village is in a semi-arid climate that has for some reason experienced unheard-of rainfall in recent years that has killed most of the crops, and at the same time all that extra moisture is spoiling other dry goods: mildewing textiles, moldy thatch roofs, and rotting ropes.

Your protagonist either knows how to make rope more quickly than the villagers, or knows how to make rope from a different material that is either more readily available than their tradition or less susceptible to rot. If for example the villagers traditionally make hemp ropes, but those crops are also dying in the famine, knowing how to make animal hair ropes would be valuable.

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