Roped In: Sara Hagel and Horsehair Rope Making

What is simple work? In a fast-paced society, we often overlook jobs which require a lot of time, skill, and mistake making to master.

Many jobs today are considered “simple,” “easy,” or “low-skill” despite requiring specific skills and a great amount of practice and training. Many aspects of folklife are no different—especially fiber arts. In fact, most fiber arts are considered “women’s work” or considered “simple hobbies” and often treated less seriously, especially as manufacturers can quickly put out quilts, gloves, wall hangings, and more. This results in many people finding less importance and understanding in the value of handmade textiles. Other fiber arts are forgotten altogether, or not considered as such because they differ from the most known forms such as knitting or embroidery.

One particular fiber artist caught my eye while scouring the Wyoming Folklife Archive: Sara Hagel, a horsehair rope maker form Dayton, Wyoming. With a machine that has an interesting history based in accommodating disability and a love for her craft, Hagel has been making and selling rope for decades and has all but mastered her craft. Knowing what conditions make the best rope, how to twist hairs to create patterns, and even building her own shed to maintain humidity for the rope, Hagel’s work has certainly earned a spotlight.

A close-up of five ropes twisted by Sara Hagel. The ropes are made of black, white, grey, and various shades of brown horsehair with patterns of stripes and dots. Photo taken by Elaine Thatcher. Digital file ahcdm_545018_002, Wyoming Folklife Archive, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Hagel’s machine was built in 1929 for a man named Sam Champlin. Having previously been a miner, Champlin had been blinded after an accident at work. Without many social safety nets in place, his outlook for job opportunities and financial stability was grim. But friendship and community came to Champlin’s aid. One of Champlin’s friends had been taught by his father how to make rope, and he offered to pass he skill onto Champlin. Over a period of two years, Champlin’s friends gathered found and salvaged parts to build a rope machine for Champlin. Using tracks and pieces of carts from gold mines, this group of friends was able to help Champlin start a new career which provided for him and his wife until he eventually retired three decades later.

In 1959, Champlin went to the California State School for the Blind. His goal was to pass on the skill to another blind person, as well as give them his machine. Eventually Bob Mills and his wife accepted the offer. Having previously planned on being chicken farmers, the Mills couple lived with Champlin and his wife for a year as Bob learned how to twist and make rope.

From 1959 until 1995, Mills continued to utilize Champlin’s machine. On his left would be black hair while white hair would be on his right side, the fibers cleaned and spun by this wife Pauline. This system was very helpful for Mills as it meant he could reliably twist rope without worrying about accidentally using the wrong color when twisting either single colored or patterned ropes. As health problems causing Mills’ blindness grew worse, the couple eventually made the decision to retire and sell the machine to the next generation of rope makers.

Luckily, Sara Hagel’s family knew the Mills well. Hagel had taken up horsehair rope making at age 13 when her father taught her as a summer job. While he hadn’t been fond of the process himself, his daughter truly enjoyed it. After picking up the machine from the Mills, Hagel took it home and began working on rope on her own.

A picture of the hook which anchors the start of the rope. Hagel walks away from the hook as she twists, allowing the rope to become longer. Photo taken by Elaine Thatcher. Digital file ahcdm_545018_002, Wyoming Folklife Archive, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Now selling her ropes through her business, Hagels’s Cowboy Gear, she markets her ropes to a broad range of clientele. Some are cowboys willing to pay a bit extra for their rope, some are collectors, but mostly buyers are those who visit horse clinics and, seeing the use of Hagel’s ropes there, they then seek her services.

With as many clients as Hagel receives and such an intensive process to follow, Hagel has taken to keeping records of every rope she makes. Usually making ropes in lengths of 22-24 feet, Hagel numbers each rope according to the year and the order in which it is made, records the length and diameter, and even the humidity of the shed when the rope was made. Hagel says that humidity plays a major factor in whether ropes end up breaking or becoming too soft, and that she aims to keep her shed between 30 or 60 percent humidity in order to make sure that wherever her rope goes, it will not be too humid or too dry for the rope to properly hold. She says that 45 percent is the perfect spot. Keeping these records not only helps Hagel to know the best rope-making conditions, but it makes it easier to replicate orders so clients needn’t remember exactly what colors or patterns they like in their rope when they’re ready to order a new one.

There are many complexities that come with making rope, including the fact that the sturdiest rope is twisted just shy of being tight enough to snap and the process must be periodically checked to ensure there are no clumps in the rope. Unfortunately, many people still do not recognize the hard work that goes into Hagel’s craft. While demonstrating her work at an event hosted by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, Hagel was dismayed to hear many visitors comment that her work was boring, reducing it to “walking backwards all day.” Hagel’s work does in fact require her to walk backwards, as she moves further back to add more fiber to the rope during the twisting process. Hagel quite enjoys this procedure, and it is a necessary step to lengthen the twists. Others insisted it was no different to their experiences learning simple rope-making as children in the Boy Scouts, ignoring the true craft of Hagel’s hard-won profession.

Hagel, pictured holding a bundle of horse hair in her arm while she twists a rope, walking further from the anchor to lengthen the twist. Photo taken by Elaine Thatcher. Digital file ahcdm_545018_002, Wyoming Folklife Archive, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Having spent this past summer working with the Wyoming Folklife Archive at the American Heritage Center, Hagel’s work stood out as I studied the fiber arts in Wyoming. Among knitters, weavers, and more, Hagel was the only rope maker to be found. Fiber arts often require precision, attention to detail, and dedication. Hagel’s work is certainly no exception to this. However, what stands out most about Hagel is that rope making is one of few textile arts often attributed to being “women’s work.” These ropes are especially important for ranch work and livestock handling and other such activities usually associated with men.

I wish all the best for Hagel, for more people in Wyoming to find interest in rope making, and for more people to understand that what may seem like simple work to them is incredibly skillful work, and an important part of Wyoming folklife that should be celebrated.

To learn more about Hagel, fiber arts, and folklife in Wyoming, see the Wyoming Folklife Archive at the American Heritage Center. You can also learn about other fiber artists in Wyoming by checking out the AHC’s online museum exhibit on Virmuze.

Post contributed by AHC Intern Ciel Larsen Hunter. Ciel, a student in the UW American Studies program, was a participant in a grant project from the Wyoming Arts Council to assist with the Wyoming Folklife Archive housed at the AHC.


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