The lure and lore of knots

(Photo Credit: Nadeem Abdulla)

(Photo Credit: Nadeem Abdulla)

Before humankind knew how to make fire or a wheel, to harness the wind, cultivate the soil, or even, perhaps, to string sounds into sentences, they tied knots.

In ancient Egypt, the practice of surveying land required a long rope, knotted at intervals and pulled taut by the knots so as to form a triangle. Greek and Roman physicians used knots as surgical slings. Many cultures once used knotted cords to record and recall genealogical family trees, or as calendars and calculators such as the abacus, which evolved from knots on strings. Rosary beads were once knotted cords and the knots on the waist-ties of monks and nuns still bind them symbolically to their vows.

During the days of square-rigged warships and merchant ships, dockyard riggers and seagoing mariners took ropework further than ever before. Today it is anglers and climbers who, more than anyone else, devise and name the new knots or the modifications of ones that already exist.

Knots are often named according to their use, their user, their appearance, their nationality, or their characteristics. Some knots are nameless, while others have more than one name. People of every continent and culture, country and climate have ended up having more or less the same knots. It is not necessary to know the name of a knot in order to tie and use it.

Basic knot knowledge

Bends: When two separate ropes are knotted, rather than spliced, because they are intended to be taken apart again later, they are said to be ‘bent together’.

Hitches: These attach ropes to a hook, post, ring, rail, spar or another rope. Most are intended to cope with a load that pulls more or less at right angles to the point of attachment.

Knots: Strictly speaking, a knot is anything that is not a bend or a hitch, although it is perfectly all right to refer to any bend or hitch as a knot. Knots include bindings, shortenings, stoppers, loops and nooses. Many loop knots are used as hitches because they can be applied, removed, then reapplied with no need to tie, untie and retie them.

The parts of a length of line in which a knot is tied, with its various twists and tucks, all have names. The end employed in tying the knot is the working end. The inactive end is the standing end. Everything in between is the standing part.

Any curve in a line of less than 180º, resembling a shallow bay on a coastline map, is a bight. In the past, anything with a bend greater than that was called an open loop, but knotting has evolved and terms have mutated so nowadays, this too tends to be called a bight. When the two legs of a bight or open loop touch or form a crossing point, it becomes a closed loop, or simply a loop. When using the working end to form a loop, if it goes on top of the crossing point, it is an overhand loop and if it goes beneath, then it is an underhand loop.

A bowline on a bight. (Photo Credit:

A bowline on a bight. (Photo Credit:

This may sound complicated, but in truth anyone can tie knots. Learn just a few essential knots and you may well find you have an aptitude for them that could change your outlook on life. That is because there is endless pleasure to be had from studying and practicing knots.

What practical knots should a beginner learn first? It is debatable. By mastering and then combining a few basic knotting manoueuvres, more complicated knots can be assembled. Ask any experienced knot-tyer, however, and certain essential knots come up repeatedly. These include:

The constrictor knot

The figure-of-eight

The round turn and two half hitches

The bowline

The sheet bend

The buntline hitch

The ability to tie a few basic bends and bindings, hitches, loops and lashings is an invaluable skill that separates the useful individual from the mere onlooker. As well as being able to ride a bicycle, change an electric fuse, read a map, drive a car, swim, and perform first aid in an emergency, everyone should know a few knots.

It makes good sense to shed our over-dependence on buckles, clips and zip-fasteners, safety pins and superglue when a length of cord or rope and the right choice of knot work at least as well and often better.


what-knot2Excerpted from What Knot? by Geoffrey Budworth and Richard Hopkins. All photos courtesy of Chartwell Books, unless otherwise noted.

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