Lost Knowledge: Knot tying

Lost Knowledge: Knot tying

The Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technologies of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those slightly forgotten or just off to the side). We look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of MAKE Volume 17

One of my favorite sites for finding ideas for the “Lost Knowledge” column, Low-Tech Magazine, has a piece (first in a series?) called “Lost Knowledge: ropes and knots.” Hey, why not? We’ve been… “borrowing” from them… In fact, I’d been planning on doing a column on knot tying, and again, they’ve done most of the work for me! They actually have two fairly in-depth features, the “Ropes and knots” piece and “How to tie the world together: online knotting reference books.” Here are some excerpts from these pieces, followed by some additional resources, and previous knotty content from MAKE.


From “Lost Knowledge: Ropes and knots:”

Few realize the importance that knots and cords have played in human history. It is remarkable that they are not even mentioned in otherwise great books on the history of technology. Yet, it is hard to find any important technology developed over the last 250,000 years that did not, in some way, make use of ropes and knots. Starting in prehistoric times, they were used for hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting and climbing.

The hardware: ropes

From fibers to rope In rope making, four basic steps are identified: preparing the fibre, spinning the fibres together to form yarns, twisting the yarns in bunches to form strands, and winding the strands in rope.

At each stage the twisting is performed in the opposite direction from the previous stage, in order to overcome the natural tendency for each yarn, strand or rope to unravel. Most ropes consist of three twisted strands (called a Hawser laid rope).


The ropewalk method – which was also in use in China – is very simple. Describing it is a little more difficult. I came across many lengthy and sometimes puzzling explanations, but the one I found in the book “Handbook of Fibre Rope Technology” makes it quite clear (the accompanying illustration comes from the same source).


The software: knots

By themselves, ropes are essentially useless. They have to be tied to something (be it an object, another rope or to themselves) and therefore they need knots to function. A simple comparison would be that if ropes are considered the hardware, knots would be the software. While knotting technology must have been very simple in prehistoric times, it became a highly specialized art over time.

The sheer number and diversity of knots that was once in use would be bewildering to the modern city-dweller. About 4,000 different knots exist, ranging from the very simple to the extremely complex. Not so long ago, each profession or trade had adopted the knots best suited to its requirements, and knotting was part of their daily lives. Today, only campers, boy scouts, climbers and sailors acquire some knowledge of this once imperative technology.

From: “How to tie the world together”

Fastening knots

squareKnot.jpgWith a bit more sophistication, much better knots can be made. The “figure eight knot” (commonly used to prevent a rope from running through an eye or ring or tackle block) is almost as simple as the overhand knot, and only a step beyond this is the “square knot”, which is one of the best all-round knots known (above, left). It is very strong, never slips or becomes jammed when being strained, and is readily untied. Beware of the “granny knot”, though, which looks very similar but is utterly useless. In spite of its versatility, however, the “square knot” is not always ideal.

openHand.jpgFor example, it is not reliable when joining two ropes of unequal size together, because they will slip. In this case, the “open-hand knot” can be used (illustration on the right). In joining small lines, the “weaver’s knot” is the best option, while the “fisherman’s knot” is valuable when it is important that the two lines may be drawn apart with just one pull.

monkeyChain.jpgThe “hawser knot” is the best to use when joining two stiff and heavy ropes and the “bowline knot” comes in handy to tie a horse or cow so that they will not choke themselves. For every possible application, our forefathers seem to have developed a suitable knot. Tools to be used in tandem with knots also exist: in a number of cases a toggle is used either to aid in making the knot or make it easier to untie it after a strain has been applied (illustration on the left, applied to a decorative knot called the “monkey chain”).

endingKnot.jpgTwo distinct types of fastening knots are “ending knots” and “shortening knots”. Ending knots prevent the rope from unravelling – some form of an “artificial eye” is one way to do that (illustration on the right). Shortening knots are useful when the rope is too long and where it is awkward to have the free ends hanging loose, or where the ends are in use and the slack must be taken up in the middle of the rope. Both types come in a wide variety and are also used extensively for their ornamental value.

knotTiesSpllces.jpgArchive.org’s digital copy of Knots, Ties, Splices (1884)


The International Guild of Knot Tyers has a decent beginner’s knot tying section and a gallery of members’ knots. (Above is member Marc Lauwereyns’ knot board.)

Animated Knots by Grog, the go-to site for learning knot-tying now has an iPhone app with animations for dozens of knot ties useful for boaters, climbers, fishermen, scouts and hobbyists.


Article on how to build a “ropewalk” for constructing rope for ship models.

How-To: Tie the 10 most useful knots


How-To: Tie knots!


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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