Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thoughts On Knots

"Down through the ages the tying of knots and the making of rope have played highly important roles in the life of Man. That there has always been a need for rope or cord of some kind can be readily appreciated. Since rope could have served but few useful purposes unless it could have been attached in some manner to the things it was desired to pull, life, or secure, Man, at the time of his first conception of the use of rope, must have conceived of some means of tying knots."

Thus begins the introduction of Raoul Graumont and John Hensel's Encyclopedia of Knots and Fancy Rope Work: Fourth Edition (1942). And although the history given in their brief preface is entirely dated, some interesting tidbits were intriguing enough to be worth repeating here.

The Making of Rope! (as of 1942, remember... Mostly, I just loved the old-school, industrial photos that the book posited as "how to make rope" as if it were the only way.)

Step one: Bales of fiber are put through a series of carding machines that transform the "hemp" into a consistency referred to as "silver.")

Step two: Through multiple cardings, the "silvers" are separated into smaller strands and those strands are spun into yarn.

Step three: Individual strands of yarn (of differing, specific guages) are plied together to make rope.

Step four: Multi-stranded ropes are again plied to create thicker, stronger, finished ropes.

Step Five: Uhm.. this diagram shows more plying? The photos aren't actually labeled all that clearly...

Step six: Finished ropes are wound onto spools to maintain their twist and tensions.

Knots: Symbolism and Superstition

I have found, through my informal investigations of history and myth, that objects with the most important functionalities are often associated with the most powerful symbolisms and superstitions: a correlation that is exemplified perfectly by the history of knots.

One example of this is the Early Egyptian, Greek and Roman practice of omitting knots in any of their artistic renderings. No knot was illustrated in their paintings, even where they very clearly should have been. Instead, rope was draped over the spot to indicate the existence of an absent knot. It's theorized that the reasoning behind this tradition was the supposed relationship of rendering to reality: were the knots to be permanently embodied in art the knot it represented in real life would thusly be permanently tied. Since knots were used as temporary holdings for farmers, sailors, etc. the inability to untie a knot would have disasterous consequences.

Similarly, among the Lapps, certain Germanic races, and the aboriginals of Borneo (as well as other ancient peoples) there was a strong superstition against pregnant women wearing knots or knotted garments. It was thought that the presence of a knot would cause complications during childbirth. In the more superstitious cases, even the husbands of pregnant women would abdicate the wearing of knots until the child was born. In some sections of Scandinavia even use of words related to knots were seen as having great power: parents with a large number of children would often name a son "Knute" or "Canute" (translations of "knot") in the hopes that the name would act as a form of birth control.

Among some European tribes, there was a belief that knots had the ability to either cause or cure illness. One such superstition was that a fever could be cured by tying knots in the bows of a willow tree: one knot for every day of fever. Then by the incantation of certain words the tree would acquire the fever and the patient would be cured.

Witches and Wizards were often considered to be able to control the magical powers of knots. Sailors would go to a witch or wizard to purchase "the wind tied up in knots," embodied by a piece of rope tied into three knots. In an emergency, these sailors were told that by untying the knots in sequence they could release the winds: first a strong wind, then a gale and finally a hurricane. (Apparently, there were risks that came along with the use of such powerful magic.)

Knots have also led to numerous common words and phrases, such as "cutting the Gordian Knot" (a bold and direct way of dealing with a complicated project), knots per hour (the method of measuring boat speed- actually derived from the use of knots) and the literary term "denoument" (a french translation of unknotting or unravelling that refers to the point in a plot where complicated things become clear).

Oh man.. I could go on and on. There are infinite applications for knots, cultural histories that range the globe and span history, even a whole branch of mathematics that deals with "knot theory." I had no idea that by committing to this project that I would be presented by such a wealth of metaphor... which just proves yet again why i love textile so much: The history of our culture, of humanity, is tied up by textiles. (Pun intended.)

**Sources consulted:

Encyclopedia of Knots and Fancy Rope Work: Fourth Edition (1942), by Raoul Graumont and John Hensel

Rigamaroles & Ragamuffins: Unpicking words we derive from textiles (2007), by Elinor Kapp

wikpedia entry for "knots"

No comments: