Thinking about knots

I have to admit that I generally don’t read those fancy magazines that often come with the Sunday New York Times.  I may flip though them and look at some of the ads – I like reading about fancy $60 million penthouses with views of the Hudson or palatial estates with zillions of bedrooms – but I rarely read any of the articles.  But this morning I was leafing though the magazine that came yesterday and saw the article by Jody Rosen about knots.  Yes, knots.

Knot enthusiasts like to say that civilization is held together by knots. It sounds like a wisecrack — but if you take a look around, you may begin to see the truth behind the quip. You could start by scrutinizing your shoes. They’re tied, undoubtedly, with the first knot that you ever learned, the famous shoelace knot, or bowknot, or as some knot experts prefer to call it, the double-slipped reef knot: a knot that combines a simple half-hitch with those two bunny-eared loops to create an ingenious little mechanism, taut enough to keep your feet snugly sheathed but with a built-in quick-release that can free them in an instant, with a single tug on a string. 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.

Now consider the clothing you’re wearing. What is your cable-knit sweater but a whole lot of knotting? 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. Knots, it seems, are the only thing standing between you and an indecent-exposure charge.

And that’s just the beginning. There may well be a 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. 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.

There are even knots on the Mars Rover.

I learned about knots as a Girl Scout when we had to learn a particular number as a requirement for one of the badges.  I even learned to splice rope from my father when he was preparing the lines for one of our sailboats.  And, pre-frozen shoulder, I used to knit all the time.  I want to learn to braid bread dough.  So, like most people, knots are part of my life.  One just doesn’t think of them very often.

In other words, knots are ubiquitous — so threaded, as it were, into the fabric of everyday life that they are easily overlooked, hidden in plain sight. In certain quarters, though, knots command center stage. One such place is a 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. It is a modest two-story brick building of Edwardian vintage, distinguished from neighboring houses only by a telling detail: a forged iron door knocker in the shape of knotted rope. 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. “I’m a socialist, of a sort,” 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. In a sun-flooded library on the ground floor, there are pieces of rope and fish netting dangling from timber beams, dozens of nautical paintings and artifacts, and rows of old bottles of Stockholm tar, also known as pine tar, a substance used to weatherproof rope. The bookshelves that line all four walls are packed with what may be the world’s largest private collection of knot literature. There are 19th-century knot treatises and multiple copies of the knotter’s bible, “The Ashley Book of Knots” (1944), a monumental work of history, reference and how-to, written and illustrated by the American Clifford W. Ashley. There are also copies of books written by Pawson himself, which include basic knotting handbooks as well as more specialized monographs: “Sailors’ Rope Mats From Yarn, Strands and Sennit,” “Some Notes on the Rogue’s Yarn,” ” ‘Tom Bowling’ and the Book of Knots: A Bibliography and Commentary, Together With a Solution to the Mystery.”

Who knew there was an organization for knot tyers?

nside Pawson's Museum of Knots and Sailors' Ropework in Suffolk, England

nside Pawson’s Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropework in Suffolk, England

Pawson also has a museum which has limited public access, but is described in loving detail in the article.  Among the treasures in his collection is

…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.

There are other knots that aren’t necessarily physical ones.  Like marriage – tying the knot.

Of course, you don’t need to be a satellite engineer or an artisan to be a knotter: We all tie knots. If you pause for a moment the next time you’re lacing up your boots, you might glimpse what Pawson and other devotees see in knot-tying: an exercise in physics and in metaphysics, a homely everyday activity that can also be a science experiment, a work of art and something along the lines of a spiritual practice. In “The Ashley Book of Knots,” Clifford Ashley wrote: “[The] simple act of tying a knot is an adventure in unlimited space … an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the rope maker’s coil.” To which one might also add: Knots are damn useful. “Where would we be,” Pawson says, “without a knot in the pajama cord?”

So now I’m going to be super aware of knots when I tie my shoes or the belt to my bathrobe.  I may even try to take up knitting again.

Photograph:  Tobias Harvey

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