Without knots, there would be no lace. This detail comes from 17th-century French needle lace.
Without knots, there would be no lace. This detail comes from 17th-century French needle lace.
Baltimore Museum of Art

In the Loop

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 19, 2007

Knots made humans human.

They gave us lashings for the lean-to, bindings for the stone ax, packages with handles, and ways of hanging stuff from belts. From knots we got the bracelet, ways to tie the hair up, snares to snatch the rabbit, the basket and the bow.

But that was long ago. The technologies of tying are fading all around us. The knot's gone obsolete.

Kids can barely tie their shoes now. Their sneakers close with Velcro. The clerk, when you went shopping, used to tie your parcels up with string. Now they come in plastic. Surgeons laser-fuse and staple where they used to stitch.

Each distinctive trade (the stevedore, the dressmaker, the carter, the hangman) once had its own distinctive knottings. Now, except for hobbyists (knitters, sailors, rock climbers), who ties knots at all?

* * *

Think of what we owe the technologies of tying.

Without knots we'd be naked. Pelts slide off the shoulder unless laced together. Knots led us to the needle, and after that to weaving and every kind of cloth.

Without mooring lines and nets, the bowline and the clove hitch, we'd have never gone to sea.

Or high into the mountains. The ice man with the copper ax found frozen in the Alps knew nothing of weaving but much of knots. He'd tied eight different kinds of them. He carried spare rope and spare yarn. His shoelaces were long. His stone arrowheads were bundled with a string.

An engraving, circa 1500, after Leonardo da Vinci's
An engraving, circa 1500, after Leonardo da Vinci's "First Knot."(National Gallery of Art)
To knot, you have to comprehend, remember and repeat -- as you do in ritual, as you do in art. Knots are tied to memory. The first rosaries were knotted. To retrieve their long songs, the bards of ancient Ireland fingered knotted strings. Jews tie knots in the fringes of their prayer shawls.

Knots in painting are a presence. The most beautiful of all may be those on the pages of the Book of Kells, which are more than decorations. Twelve-hundred years ago, when that great book was produced on an island off of Scotland, and few people could read, its interweaving lines evoked the teachings of the Bible. Those spiral interlacings with their leavings and returns were reminders of the teachings, now hidden, now apparent, woven in the Word, and the parables of Christ.

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