Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Cornucopia of Meaningless Hobbies and Other Trivial Ways of Passing The Time : Knots


I remember when I was a kid, eating Sunday lunch and listening to the Billy Cotton Bandshow on the radio. I particularly remember one song he used to play – and Alan Breeze used to sing – which was all about the pleasure of untying knots in a piece of string. And there is a pleasure in it – the pleasure of unravelling. When it’s raining outside and there is nothing decent on the telly, give me a pint of half-decent beer and a good knotted piece of string and I’m a happy man. I am tempted to suggest that people fall into one of two personality types which can easily be identified, based only on whether they would prefer to tie knots or untie them. We are all either ravellers or unravellers, constructors or deconstructors. However, when it comes to social organisation, to the willingness of people to shout their proclivity from the rooftop of Hobby Hall, the ravellers win every time. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the twisted world of the knot enthusiast.

I am loath to suggest that knots are in any way trivial. If you have nothing better to do with your life, you can try the little experiment suggested by one of the knot tying websites and count how many times a day you either tie or untie a knot (In my case it came to a somewhat disappointing “three” and two of those were my shoelaces – and before you ask I pulled my shoes off without untying them). Whilst slip-on shoes and clip-on ties might be downgrading the importance of the mechanics of knots in our lives, scientists are increasingly focusing their attention on the importance of knots in our understanding of the very fabric of life on earth. For some time, mathematicians have devoted a good deal of time to what is known as “knot theory”. Mathematical knots are defined as “structures which embed a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidean space” and when represented in diagrammatic form have an uncanny likeness to the diagrams you can find in Boy Scout manuals. More recently, other branches of theoretical science have begun to study knots. Physicists are interested in knots because the latest theories of matter postulate that everything is made up of tightly coiled (and maybe knotted) loops of space-time, and biologists are interested in knots because the long, string-like molecules of DNA coil themselves up tightly to fit inside the cell.

The knot hobbyist however is more of the hands-on rope type of person. They take their lengths of rope and balls of string and from them they conjure the most astonishing creations. Enter the world of the “knot-head” (a descriptive term adopted by many American knot enthusiasts) and you are entering the world of the clove hitch, the sheepshank, the Turks Head, Monkeyfist and Jug Sling. With there ties, passes and bights they create coasters and picture frames, bell-pulls and key-rings, bracelets and decorative wall-hangings. Get a group of knot-heads together in the same room – which the various branches of the
International Guild of Knot Tyers does with astonishing regularity – and the passage of time is lost as loops of twine bind the participants together in happy fellowship. And if you are unfortunate enough to live too far away from your local knot tying chapter, there is, of course, a vibrant on-line community ready to welcome you. Currently there are over 1,000 members of the Yahoo knot-tyers discussion group. Recent topics have included the search for a formula for estimating cordage length (SL = (3.14 *(D+3*d)*L)/(d*S) was suggested by one correspondent) and which knotting book one would best like to be stranded on a desert island with.

The internet is also the source of another invaluable resource for the budding knot enthusiast – the animated knot diagram. Turn to any of the standard knot tying books – and these are more widely available than you might think, I found one in my local Garden Centre only the other day – and you will find a load of fussy diagrams showing endless loops and loose ends, with enough overs and unders to give even the most relaxed a thumping good headache. But turn to an
animated knot diagram and everything becomes clear. Thanks to one such presentation I am now sporting a tie featuring a full Windsor Knot.

Although the world of the raveller is well catered for in both the traditional and the on-line literature, us unravellers are an endangered, unsupported and unloved species. Whilst our friends are out attending knot-tyers supper parties we sit alone with our knotted string and our desire to open that which has been locked. Like Alexander the Great we take the sword of reason to the Gordian knot of modern living. And we do it in splendid isolation.

1 comment:

  1. The modern version of knot unravelling is the task of disentangling the miles of cable attached to our countless machines. I'm thinking particularly of the hours it can take if I once let that mower extension lead get snarled up.

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