A Brief History of Knot Tying

Updated on December 18, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent almost half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

For most people, their repertoire of knots is limited to two: the reef knot and the clove hitch. Those who can recall their guiding or scouting days may also remember the bowline and the sheepshank–just the names, not how to tie them. But that’s a tiny fraction of a baffling array of ways that ropes can be put to use.

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The Knotter’s Bible

In 1944, Clifford W. Ashley completed 11 years of work and published his book The Ashley Book of Knots. It is considered the definitive work on the subject, by cataloging 3,800 knots and devising a numbering system to identify each. The book has never gone out of print.

The Ashley Book of Knots.
The Ashley Book of Knots. | Source

In July 2017, The New Bedford (Massachusetts) Whaling Museum opened a special exhibit on Ashley’s work entitled punningly Thou Shalt Knot.

The museum waxed lyrical: knots “are integral to the ships we sail, the clothes we wear, the hair we braid, the memories we keep, our colloquial expressions, the games we play, the shoes we tie, the presents we give, the fish we catch, the social contracts that bind us.”

But new knots do get invented. When that happens they are vetted by the International Guild of Knot Tyers (What? You didn’t know there was such a body? Well, now you do). If the guild confers its knot of approval, the new knot is added to Mr. Ashley’s magnum opus.

“Right over left, then left over right,

makes a knot both tidy and tight.”

Reef knot mnemonic

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Tie Knots

Men knot their ties and lace up their shoes before heading off for another day at the hedge fund factory or a moment of glory in front of the TV cameras.

It’s a bit off topic but why do men wear ties? Here’s a theory – Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear – put forward in response to a question in The Guardian: “Anthropologists would argue that the tie directs a viewer’s attention downwards to the wearer’s genitals (hence the arrow-like shape).” One can think of a certain very highly placed national leader who boasts of groping women and wears his tie with an extremely long dangly bit.

The Duke of Windsor gets the, probably unearned, credit for developing the wide Windsor knot. The received wisdom is that his father, George V, created the knot. Or, could it have been some lowly footman below stairs who was ordered to produce something to satisfy his majesty’s tastes?

There are plenty of other ways to handle a necktie: The Pratt Knot, The Café Knot, and The Hanover Knot are just a few. But, authors Thomas Fink and Yong Mao go much further as the title of their 1999 book, The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie, attests

Then, along comes Swedish mathematician Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson. He and his team of number crunchers have calculated there are 177,147 possible ways to knot a necktie. The bootlace tie isn’t one of them.

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The Shoe Lace Knot

One of life’s most used, and sometimes useless, knots is the one that’s supposed to keep our shoes on our feet. It’s simple: tie half a reef knot, form two bunny-ear loops and tie them together with another half reef knot.

If you’re lucky, the knot will stay tied until you get home for a corpse-reviving glass of wine. Often though, the knot slips and comes undone; as a general rule, the knot waits to do this until you are running to catch a bus, or are climbing stairs with a tray of coffee.

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Oliver O’Reilly is a professor of mechanical engineering with the University of California and he knows all about the self-untying shoelace. He and his colleagues studied athletes running on a treadmill and discovered the knot is subjected to a force of 7 Gs. “First, the knot begins to loosen. Once that happens, the action of the flapping ends escalates the unravelling until the knot unravels, which happens very suddenly …” (Live Science).

But, help is on the way. It comes in the form of Ian’s Shoelace Page, an encyclopedic look at more than everything you ever wanted to know about tying shoelaces. It is the brainchild of Ian Fieggen of Melbourne, Australia, and he offers Ian’s Secure Shoelace Knot of his own invention as the solution to one of life’s pesky irritations.

On the other hand, there’s Velcro and slip-ons.

The Gordian Knot

The story is that in 333 BCE Alexander the Great of Macedonia occupied Gordium, the capital of Phrygia, in modern-day Turkey.

Inside the city, the military genius came across a wagon. Its yoke was secured by what a later Roman writer described as “several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.” According to Phrygian legend, whoever could unravel the knot would become the ruler of Asia.

Apparently, Alexander struggled with the tangled rope for a while without success. Then, he drew his sword and whacked the knot apart. And, didn’t he go one to conquer much of Asia before he died at the age of 32?

The Gordian Knot fable has passed into our language to describe any problem that is seemingly impossible to solve. “Cutting the Gordian Knot” describes any creative or unusual way of solving a difficult puzzle.

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Bonus Factoids

The Six Knot Challenge requires the competitor to tie a Sheet Bend, Reef Knot, Bowline, Sheepshank, Clove Hitch, and a Round Turn and Two Half-Hitches. The world record for this challenge was set in 1977 by Clinton R. Bailey, Sr., of Pacific City, Oregon. It took him just 8.1 seconds.

Most shoes have six pairs of eyelets. According to Ian’s Shoelace Site, there are almost two trillion ways in which laces can be threaded through those eyelets.

“Tying the knot” is a phrase often used to describe getting married. In folklore it symbolizes the union of two people and in some religious wedding ceremonies sashes are placed over the wrists of the betrothed couple in remembrance of the practice of actually tying their hands together.

“When you get to the end of your rope,

tie a knot and hang on.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

  • “Queries.” The Guardian, undated.
  • “Thou Shalt Knot: Clifford W. Ashley.” New BedfordWhalingMuseum, July 2017.
  • “There Are 177,147 Ways To Tie A Tie.” Kelsey D. Atherton, Popular Science, February 11, 2014
  • “Why Do Shoelaces Come Untied? Science Explains.” Mindy Weisberger, Live Science, April 11, 2017.
  • The International Guild of Knot Tyers
  • Ian’s Shoelace Site
  • “What Was the Gordian Knot?” Evan Andrews, History, February 3, 2016.

Questions & Answers

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      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 4 months ago from Ohio

        I never knew there was so much to know about knots, lol. Thanks for the lesson.

      • Rupert Taylor profile image
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        Rupert Taylor 4 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

        My grandmother was great with knots back in the day when parcels were wrapped in brown paper and secured with string tied with perfect knots. That was before we had sticky tape and long before Maria von Trapp sang that brown paper parcels tied up with string were among her favourite things.

      • Glenis Rix profile image

        GlenR 4 months ago from UK

        Knots. The bane of my life. I wish that I had a pound for every hour that I have spent attempting to unravel knots. Fine gold and silver jewellery chains lie abandoned in drawers, my endeavours to unpick them with a pin having failed. Soon my patience is to be tried yet again by Christmas tree lights. But I now at least know that these items, which have taken on uncommonly stubborn characteristics , have tied themselves into Gordian knots. Don’t get me started on washing lines that untie themselves from clothes posts once loaded with bed sheets!

        How can I have reached a ripe old age in ignorance of the Knotters’ Bible? I fear it is now too late to learn and thank fortune for Velcro closures on shoes.

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