We again must go back to the Gothic period when OE was spoken. A piece of yarn, spun fiber, string, or tool was then called a tau or taw. If you took several pieces of tau and twisted or wove them into a rope, the process was called cabling, and the resulting rope was a cabled-taw. I think it must have had about
the strength of moderately thick wrapping cord, not the equivalent of modern cable or rope.
The string was used to mark off straight lines with chalk or charcoal, depending on the darkness of the background material. Modern builders do much the same thing. Roll or rub the string with the powdery material and then pluck it when stretched in place to leave a line of powder along the string. After the
foundation was in place, the string could be re-used as cabled-taw or light rope.
During later construction, when the height of the building required some climbing, workers carried a cabled-taw for hauling their tools up to their work areas. OSHA was not there to prescribe reliable ladders and scaffolding, so they made do with quite rickety poles and lashings -- no lumber; it was way too expensive. You can still see holes in the walls of the cathedrals where they inserted fairly thin _sticks_ to hold up temporary scaffolding. Climbing with heavy tools or mortar was therefore even less safe, so they climbed first and hauled the tools up later. Again, there are paintings showing the rickety scaffolds and tools being lifted.
The length of a worker's cable-tow therefore determined how high he could climb before hauling up his tools. I suspect that only the most experienced were given long cable-tows, or else only the most daring would take them. It effectively limited the height to which a worker could be asked to climb. Something beyond the length of one's cable-tow, was therefore an unreasonable request.
The really heavy lifting of stone or wood was accomplished with balanced cranes. Records show that these monster engines could be rented, just as heavy cranes often are today. In at least one case in France, though, the large crane was incorporated right into the cathedral tower and is still there today. I don't remember where that is.
It is interesting that no one seems to find any reference to the cable-tow or the practice of hauling tools up with this device among 16-17th century operatives, yet the terminology revives in speculative Masonry in the 18th c. I don't put much stock in the proposed connection to towing cables used on ships. With their connection to Gothic building practices, both the rods and the cable-tow are evidence of earlier Masonic origins than existing Lodge records would suggest.
Pittsburg #187, Kansas