We have measured the dynamics of extracellular matrix consolidation and strengthening by human dermal fibroblasts in hydrated collagen gels. Constraining matrix consolidation between two porous polyethylene posts held rigidly apart set up the mechanical stress which led to the formation of uniaxially oriented fibroblast-populated collagen matrices with a histology resembling a ligament. We measured the mechanical stiffness and tensile strength of these ligament equivalents (LEs) as a function of age at biweekly intervals up to 12 weeks in culture using a mechanical spectrometer customized for performing experiments under physiologic conditions. The LE load-strain curve changed as a function of LE age, increasing in stiffness and exhibiting less plastic-like behavior. At 12 weeks, LEs had acquired up to 30 times the breaking strength of 1-week-old LEs. Matrix strengthening occurred primarily through the formation of BAPN-sensitive, lysyl oxidase catalyzed crosslinks. Sulfated glycosaminoglycan (GAG) content increased monotonically with LE age, reaching levels that are characteristic of ligaments. Cells in the LEs actively incorporated [3H]proline and [35S]sulfate into the extracellular matrix. Over the first three weeks, DNA content increased rapidly but thereafter remained constant. This data represent the first documentation of strengthening kinetics for cell-assembled biopolymer gels and the results suggest that this LE tissue may be a valuable model for studying the cellular processes responsible for tissue growth, repair, and remodeling.