Making bow strings from plant fibers

The manufacture of bow strings from plant materials is a skill that has been practiced by Bushmen for a relatively short period. Around the year 1900, they learned from neighboring Bantu-speaking tribes how to use Sansevieria fibers to create bow strings. Before this, they relied solely on animal skin stripes and sinews for this purpose. Nowadays, after approximately 120 years, the use of hemp has completely replaced the use of animal products in the production of bow strings.

Which Sanseviera species are used to produce bowstrings by bushmen?

Depending on their location and availability, one of the following three Sansevieria species is preferably used by bushmen to make bow strings: Sansevieria cylindrica, Sansevieria hyacinthoides, or Sansevieria trifasciata.

Sansevieria cylindrica, as its name implies, has round and cylindrical leaves. Although it is native to Angola, it has spread far beyond its original range. Other species with similar round leaves, such as S. pearsonii, are also used for string-making. Producing strings from this species is not easy as the thick, round leaves are often tough and must be flattened before use.

The next species, S. hyacinthoides is the most common Sansevieria species found in the bushveld. It has thin, flat, and relatively short leaves that are tough, thin, and leathery. These leaves often have brown or dry voids that interrupt long stretches of fibers.

S. trifasciata, on the other hand, is a versatile species that has long, narrow, and relatively soft leaves that are easy to work with. They are often used as ornamental plants in suburban gardens and are preferably harvested by bushmen for demonstrations. However, it is difficult to find them in the wild as Kudu and Eland like to browse them due to their high water content.

These, Sansevieria plants are known by various names in English, such as Snake plant, Mother-in-law’s tongue, Piles root, or Bowstring hemp. In Afrikaans, they are called Skoonma-se-tong, Ambeiwortel, or Haasoor, while bushmen (San/Khoisan) refer to them as Kai or Ghaiwortel.

Harvesting the Leaves

Ideal leaves for producing strings should be long, fleshy, and free from any voids. It is challenging to find such leaves in nature, but when they are found, they should offer a good output of long fibers. Leathery leaves are not an issue, as they still provide good fibers, but working with them is more strenuous. Once suitable leaves are located, they should be cut low to the ground but above the white stem that connects them to the rhizome. After harvesting, the leaves can be stored for a long time in a dry, shady place without deteriorating. The cut area on the base will shrink around the fibers and seal against water evaporation from inside the leaf. In this article here on this website, we already described the general inner structure of Sanseviera leaves and their common uses.

Exposing the leaf fibers

There are two distinct techniques for removing the epidermis and cells around the fibers, and the choice of method depends on the plant species. The ‘Shaving technique’ is appropriate for the ‘fleshy leaf’ species, such as S. trifasciata. In contrast, for the ’round or leathery leaf’ species, S. cylindrica and S. hyacinthoides, the ‘Pounding- and shaving technique’ is required.

Shaving technique for fleshy leaves

To perform the ‘Shaving technique’ on a fleshy Sansevieria leaf, the person would hold the leaf at its base in their left hand, while holding a round stick with a sharp carved edge in their right hand. The stick’s edge is then pressed towards the leaf using the toes, while the leaf is based on the underside of a flat piece of wood or rock. By pulling the leaf repeatedly through the stick’s edge and the base wood with a fluid motion, the epidermis and plant cells are shaved off the fibers. After finishing one side of the leaf, the person turns the remaining plant bundle around and removes the epidermis and cells on the other end. Once all the shaving actions are complete, a bundle with clean fibers will remain.

Pounding- and shaving technique for round or leathery leaves

Before applying the shaving technique, the fleshy Sansevieria leaf needs to be slightly pounded with a piece of wood. Water can be sprinkled on the leaf during pounding to make the fibers more flexible if available. The blows however should not be too hard to avoid damaging the fibers. When most of the fibers are broken up, the plant bundle can be shaved as described above. This will remove the remaining epidermis and plant cells. The result will be again bundles of clean fibers.

Twisting the string

The technique of twisting strings is a common practice around the world. First, two bundles of clean fibers are tied together with a knot and separated into two smaller bundles. These two bundles form a V-shape from the knot. Then, the V-shaped double bundle is placed on the upper right leg, and with a smooth motion of the flat right hand, both bundles are moved forward about 15 cm separately at the same time. At the end of this motion, both bundles are rolled backward as one bundle. This creates a right-turned string with left-turned bundles. By doing this, the fiber strings are oriented parallel to the length of the string, which is parallel to the pulling forces. This orientation provides the highest combined strength of all utilized fibers.

It is always a good idea to start with two different lengths of fiber bundles initially. This makes it easier to alternate adding new bundles into the string. Once the desired string length is reached, the rolled string can be knotted off.

Some additional remarks should be added to this explanation. First, the thickness and density of the string can be influenced by the number of fibers used and the density of rolling, but the basic actions remain the same as described above. Second, the rolling action on the upper leg will grab all fibers in the vicinity, which can be painful for newcomers as it may pull out leg hairs. Finally, the motions described are for right-handed people, and left-handed people should perform the same actions on the other side.

To keep it simple: Roll two bundles forward and one bundle back

Drying the bowstring

Bowstrings for hunting should consist only of twisted fibers without other plant cells and be tightly twisted. Once the desired length, thickness, and uniformity of the string are achieved, it should be dried in fresh air. To do this, bushmen typically hang the string on a tree with a lightweight at the lower end. This will keep it straight without stretching it. In northern Namibia, the string will typically be completely dry and stiff after about three days of hanging.

Finishing the bowstring

Once the bowstring has completely dried, the bushman will apply beeswax to it. The wax is kneaded into the string to surround most of the fibers. This makes them waterproof and reduces friction between them when under stress, such as during shooting. Moreover, the wax helps to glue small fiber ends to the main string, reducing the likelihood of premature wear. All of these functions make a beeswax-treated bowstring much more durable. Finally, the finished bowstring is rolled up into a bundle and can be used whenever necessary.

Stringing the hunting bow

Once a bow stave has been produced following the instructions outlined in a previously published article, cord stops are prepared on both ends. On one end, a sling loop is attached. While the other end will hold the string with multiple wrappings behind an inbound wooden cord stop. Refer to the photos in the aforementioned article for guidance.

Typically, the loop in the string is knotted, but skilled individuals may twist the loop directly into the string.

When mounted at a brace height of a maximum of 20 cm / 8″, the tension of the bowstring depends on various factors. The correct tension can be determined by the sound of a high-pitched “zzhing” when twanging the string. However, the final test will be shooting the new bow.

Lessons learned about making bow strings from plant fibers:

  • Three main species of Sanseviera plants in Namibia provide fibers for bushmen.
  • Fleshy leaves of S. trifasciata can be shaved with an edged stick against a flat piece of wood or rock to remove the epidermis and surrounding cells of fibers.
  • Leathery and rounded leaves of S. cylindrica and S. hyacinthoides must be carefully pounded and then shaved.
  • Clean fiber bundles are twisted into a uniform string by rolling two bundles forward and one bundle back.
  • After twisting the string, it is dried and then treated with beeswax for waterproofing and increased durability.

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