Linda Hendrickson
Tablet Weaving and Ply-Splitting Books, Tools & Kits

How to make cords for ply-split braiding

Below are three methods for making 4-ply cords. If you have questions about cordmaking or can think of any improvements that you would like to share, please contact me.

Using a drill and a single hook, making each ply separately
Using a drill and a single hook, making a long cord and folding it
Using a four-hook cordmaker

Cordmaking with a drill and a single hook, and some cordmaking accessories you can easily make yourself

This method involves making each ply separately, holding the individual overtwisted plies under tension until all are made, and then countertwisting them together to make a 4-ply cord.

Assemble the following:

Prepare and set up the tools

Pound one finishing nail into the center of each of the 1"x1"x2" blocks of wood. One of these will be used as the "outend", and the other will be used as a "ply-holder".

Remove the bit from the drill. Bend the coathanger wire into a hook, and insert it into the drill. Tighten carefully (you don't want it to pop out while you're twisting!).

Place the drill at one end of the table (I place it on the right) and stabilize it in some way so that it doesn't move while you lay out the yarn. I hang the handle of my drill over the table and clamp a small block of wood against each side. The blocks should not be tight against the drill, but just touching the drill on each side to prevent it from tipping over. This keeps the drill in place while I lay out the yarn, and allows me to pick it up when I'm ready to twist.

If the drill handle is straight, use a length of twine or rope to attach the drill to a "drill holder". The drill holder can be made the same way as the outend and ply-holder from a small block of wood and a large finishing nail. Make a slip knot in one end of the twine and put it around the drill. Clamp the drill holder to the table and make a slip knot in the other end of the twine. This slip knot should be approximately even with the end of the drill. Place the slip knot over the nail and tighten.

Clamp the outend to the other end of the table. Place one of the paper clips on the drill hook (the paper clips are used to make it easy to transfer the yarn from the drill to the ply-holder). Measure the length from the outend to the paper clip. Decide how much twist you want to have in your cord (generally between 10% -25%). Multiply the number of inches from outend to the paper clip by the desired percentage. This will tell you how many inches there should be between the paper clip and the ply-holder. Measure this length and clamp the ply-holder to the table.

Choose the yarn

Start off with something fairly smooth and not stretchy, such as perle cotton or embroidery floss. When you feel confident, try other fibers -- just about anything will work. Perle cotton is what I usually use, but I've also made cords from linen, hemp, rayon, wool, alpaca, mohair, raffia, metallics, sewing thread, and stainless steel yarn.

The size of the cord depends on the size of the original yarn and the number of strands you lay out for each ply. An advantage of the cordmaking method described below is that each ply can be a different stretchiness or diameter because each ply is overtwisted separately.

Lay out the yarn

Make a slip-knot in the yarn, place it over the nail in the outend and pull it tight. Lay out the desired number of strands of yarn for one ply between outend and paper clip. Cut and tie, maintaining even tension on all strands.

Initial Overtwist (IOT)

The amount of twist in the cord is completely determined by this step. Pick up the drill and begin twisting. The drill hook should turn clockwise. Keep the yarn under tension as it shortens, and twist until the drill hook is even with the ply-holder. Move the paper clip from the drill hook to the ply-holder.

Twist three more plies the same way. You can use different colors or fibers in each ply. Begin by placing a paper clip on the drill hook. Lay out the yarn, twist, and transfer the paper clip to the ply-holder.

Controlled Countertwist (CCT)

Pick up the four paper clips all at once and transfer them back to the drill. Turn the drill hook counterclockwise to ply the cord. At first, the cord will lengthen; pull back to maintain tension. Stop twisting when the cord starts to shorten. If you twist too little or too much during CCT, the cord will either twist or untwist on its own.

Finish the ends

Place the drill on the table, and move it toward the outend to remove most of the tension from the cord. Depending on how you plan to use the cord, you can either tape or knot the ends. If you want to tape the ends, do this before cutting. Use the stickiest tape you can find, such as box sealing tape. Cut a small piece, about 1/2" square. Press one end against the cord, and roll tightly between your thumb and fingers. Try to make the ends of your cords look like the ends of a shoelace.

Cordmaking with a drill and a single hook

This is my version of the method described in The Techniques of Ply-Split Braiding by Peter Collingwood, which involves overtwisting one long ply, folding it twice so you have four overtwisted plies, and then countertwisting to end up with a 4-ply cord.

Assemble the following:

The distance between the drill hook and the outend needs to be about five times the length of the finished cord. For example, if you want a cord that is about 3' long, you need 15' between the drill hook and the outend.

Use a warping wand or some similar arrangement so the yarn will feed smoothly as you tension the yarn between the drill hook and the outend. A spool rack placed right next to the outend works well. My warping wand is a piece of lattice about 24" long with four holes drilled in it. This simple tool makes a big difference by keeping yarns feeding smoothly and preventing them from tangling. I clamp it to the table right next to the outend, place a cone of yarn on the floor directly underneath it, and bring the yarn up through one of the holes. If I'm making something with multiple strands, I can use up to four cones of yarn, and bring each strand up through a separate hole.

Make a slip knot near the end of the yarn and place it over the outend. Tighten it up. Then walk over to the drill and loop the yarn around the hook. Walk back to the outend. Repeat as necessary to lay the number of strands you want for each ply. Make sure you keep the yarn under tension. When you finish laying out the yarn, cut and tie it.

The first step is to overtwist the yarn. I usually overtwist until the yarn shortens 15%. So if you start out with 15' (180"), you would twist until the drill moves forward 27".

It is most common for individual strands to be twisted clockwise, and then plied counterclockwise (S-twist and Z-plied).

Once the yarn is overtwisted, you need to fold the yarn twice so that you have four plies. Keep the yarn under tension at all times. Take the end of the yarn off the drill hook, and hold the end loop around one finger. While holding the yarn under tension, put the drill hook over the twisted yarn, several inches from the end. Lay the drill on the table (or floor), and while holding the end of the yarn in your hand, drag the drill along until you can slip the end of yarn over the post. Then fold the yarn again in the same way.

Now you're ready to ply the four overtwisted strands. Switch the drill so it turns in the opposite direction. As you ply, you need to pull back on the drill to keep the tension even, because the cord will get slightly longer for a while. When it finally starts to shorten up again, you're about finished. If you twist too far in this direction, it will just come out when the tension is released.

Put the drill down on the table so the tension is off the cord, and tape the ends. Use the stickiest tape you can find. Regular Scotch tape isn't sticky enough. I use 3M box sealing tape because it seems particularly sticky. Tape carefully and neatly -- the taped ends have to go through the plies many times as you work. Cut a small piece of tape (about 1/2" x 1/2"), place one end against the cord, and roll tightly between your thumb and fingers. Try to make it look like the end of a shoelace.

Cordmaking with a 4-hook cordmaker

Click on the image below to watch a 5-minute video on how I use the Bradshaw cordmaker in my studio. In this video, I show a few ply-split objects that I have made, including jewelry, ornaments, a mat, a small rug, and two baskets. Then I show how to make a cord using paper ribbon, the material that I used for the cords in the baskets that I showed earlier.

I have three 4-hook cordmakers. The Bradshaw is a cylinder head that attaches to an electric drill. I also have two one-piece hand-operated models, the Apollo and Anna Crutchley's cord twister. I use the Bradshaw in my studio because it's fast, and the hand-operated twisters for demonstrations because they are quiet!

The following instructions are for the Bradshaw. Use C-clamps (post ends down) make a "cradle" for the drill at one end of the table. The drill handle hangs over the table and the twister head rests on the table. Attach an outend with four hooks to the other end of the table.

With the warping wand in place, measure out the yarn between the sets of hooks. The yarn must not cross from hook to hook on the cordmaker head, but may do so at the outend.

The first step is initial overtwist (IOT). The four hooks rotate independently in one direction to overtwist the yarns. Let the drill rest on the table and put a very slight pressure on the cordmaker head during this process. Overtwist until the yarn shortens the desired amount (5 - 25%).

The second step is controlled countertwist (CCT). Pick up the cordmaker and pull back slightly. When you turn on the drill, the entire head rotates in the opposite direction to ply the overtwisted yarn into a perfect four-ply cord. Keep pulling back slightly to keep tension on the yarn as it lengthens. Stop when it begins to shorten up. Lay the cordmaker down, and move it forward on the table to release the tension. Tape the ends.
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This page updated on March 21, 2016.