Monkey Fist or Sheepshank?

Knots are so cool! And they’re everywhere you look. Shoes, hair (good knots and bad knots), clothes, presents, trees, food, clothing and more. 

Getting ready for my morning run today, I paused for a minute as I tied my running shoes.  Who came up with this knot and how come I can rely in it to perform while running?  And why do we use the same approach to hold things 1000’s of years after the first caveman laced up his Nike’s?  Think about it.  With so many different ways to fasten an item – buttons, Velcro, snaps, elastic, clamps, clips and more, we still use the simple shoelace knot, often referred to as a bow knot, for shoes, sneakers, boots and bow ties.
I think as a kid Mom called the loops “bunny ears” to help me master the technique. Jackie and I certainly used the same technique when teaching our girls how to tie their shoes, and it worked great!  As I love to do, I dove into the internet, and found some great references and stories about knots – one recently published in Smithsonian, where engineers used heat sensitive rope and microscopes to test the strength points of rope.  Of course, being the head “thermal distortion” geek here at KHT, working on your PIA (Pain in the @%$) Jobs! I gobbled up the article.  Take a stroll through the info below and enjoy a visit with Des Pawson, a remarkable keeper of all things knots in England.  Special thanks to Wikipedia, Smithsonian, and the New York Times for the info/articles and You Tube for the videos – great stuff.  And be sure to include the Knot Tyers Guild annual convention in your travel plans. Enjoy!

  • Knot enthusiasts like to say that civilization is held together by knots. (learn more at HERE.  Your shoes are undoubtedly tied with the first knot that you ever learned, the famous shoelace knot, the shoelace knot is: a doubly slipped reef knot formed by joining the ends of whatever is being tied with a half hitch, folding each of the exposed ends into a loop (bight) and joining the loops with a second half hitch. The size of the loops and the length of the exposed ends are adjusted when the knot is tied. It has the stability of the reef knot but is significantly easier to untie, simply by pulling the ends away from the center of the knot.
  • Glance in the mirror and you may find more knots: the one in your necktie, perhaps, or the one made by the elastic band that is wound around to hold your hair in place. Your hair itself might be plaited into a braid: another knot. Over the years I have successfully completed numerous French braids for my daughters!
  • Now consider the clothing you’re wearing. Your cable-knit sweater is a whole lot of knotting, as is your shirt, your pants, your socks, your underwear: These sewn or knitted or woven garments are likely held together by knots, and what’s more, the materials from which they’re made — cotton or wool or acrylic or what have you — are themselves glorified knots, fibers that have been twisted together to form stronger tensile strands.
  • How about the knot in the cinnamon bun on your breakfast table. There were definitely knots in the fishing net that caught the halibut on your dinner plate. Did everyone see how I was able to “TIE” this back to food!  Doctors staunch the bleeding in an open wound with tourniquets bound by knots, and they employ knots when stitching up a body after surgery.
  • Knots are used in the construction of houses and skyscrapers; the cables supporting suspension bridges extend time-honored principles of cordage and knotting to “ropes” of galvanized steel wire.
  • Knots are an ancient technology. They predate the axe and the wheel, quite possibly the use of fire and maybe even man himself: Some scientists have speculated that the first knotters were animals, gorillas who tied simple “granny knots,” interlacing branches to construct nests. But in a century of digital tech and robotics, knots remain indispensable, with an Englishman Des Pawson, committed to celebrating the history of knots. From his house that sits along a well-trafficked residential through street a couple of hundred yards from the River Orwell in the town of Ipswich, in Suffolk, southeast England. Use that door knocker and you will be greeted by Des Pawson, a vibrant 67-year-old man with large round eyeglasses, a white beard worthy of a biblical patriarch and hair that stretches down nearly to his shoulders.
  • Pawson’s mane is partially concealed beneath a red Kangol cap – (hope you read our KHT hats post from last week) Pawson says. “I want the rope makers, I want the riggers, I want the sailmakers to be recognized for their contributions. They are a huge part of the story of knots.”
    Pawson is one of the world’s foremost knot experts, a co-founder of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, and a prolific author of knotting books. His home, which he shares with his wife, Liz, is a shrine to knots. (see the video HERE ) (check out some of his books on this website too) Pawson opened the place in 1996; in 2007, he was awarded an M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth “for services to the rope industry.”
    The museum also holds mementos of Empire — the glorious and sordid age when Britannia ruled the waves. Pawson points out an improbably chunky piece of age-blackened rope, more than two feet in circumference, as thick and gnarled as a tree trunk. It is a part of the anchor cable from the H.M.S. Victory, the ship that Lord Nelson commanded, and died aboard, in the Battle of Trafalagar. Another display case is filled with slim wooden sticks, handles wrapped in threaded rope. These nightsticks, or “coshes,” were sailors’ weapons. Pawson says: “If you’re in the stews of Liverpool or San Francisco, you want a bit of protection, don’t you?”

Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot (Donato Creti, 1671-1749)

  • There are knots of legend, like the Gordian knot that Alexander the Great sliced open with a swing of his sword to become the leader of Europe – read the legend HERE
  • There are knots reputed to have magical properties: the knots tied by Laplander shamans in handkerchiefs, which, when loosed, would raise a mighty wind and knots used by witches to cast spells.
  • The Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney wrote. We speak of marriage as “tying the knot,” a figurative knot that is likely derived from literal ones — from so-called true lovers’ knots, various knot forms, found everywhere from Scandinavia to East Asia to Mexico, that symbolize affection, commitment and betrothal. Watch these crazy marriage proposals HERE  making plans to tie the knot.
  • Fibers that change color under pressure helped researchers predict knot performance
  • The new study, published in the journal Science, paired mathematical knot theory with a color-changing fiber developed in 2013. Because the fiber changes color under pressure, the researchers were able to measure physical properties and add data to their computational knot models. They came up with three rules that determine a knot’s stability.
  • The researchers identified three characteristics that allow a knot to put up with more strain:  1) knots are more stable with each additional crossing point, where one length of rope comes in contact with another. 2) if strands at neighboring crossing points rotate in opposite directions, it will create opposing friction and also increase stability. 3) friction from strands sliding against each other in opposite directions provides the final contribution.  In the future, this type of research could be used to choose or create the right knot for any application.
  • So, just how many knots are there, and what is the strongest knot ever? It appears mathematicians and scientists have created an amazing array of knots.  Click HERE to visit the Rolfsen Knot Tables, and click on any knot image to learn more about each one … (we’ll check back in with you in a few hours as this will tie you up for a bit – couldn’t resist)  And HERE is a link to one of the strongest molecular knots ever created. Which could make more comfortable surgical sutures and even more protective bulletproof vests.