1: Relating it, (the series of articles on knotting), to this amazing project on Art History in particular, it's effects on "Art" in all senses of the term, as well as Knots as an "Art form", (not to mention various "Craft" forms!), in and of themselves.
2: Although I shall try not to be "skimpy" or too "cursory" in my inclusions, this is an "introduction" to the subject, so is not designed to be definitive at all... merely, I hope, interesting and varied enough to whet the readers appetite for the subject...
3: The last section in each article will contain an illustrated overview of the actual knots likely to have been used during the course of that given period of history. Although I can be definitive about the use of certain types of knots and braiding etc, at certain times and within certain contexts, the history of knotting is acknowledged by most experts to be simply lacking in enough evidence to be "authoritative" and is, consequently, vague in many areas. My articles will, therefore, not be as "tidy" date-wise as, say, being able to state precise dates for this or that event within documented political history... any information that anyone thinks might contribute to a greater degree of accuracy or comprehension, like web links, personal knowledge, or is simply a fun or unusual fact / oddity etc, about the subject, will therefore be very, very welcome by me as a comment under the relative article to supplement the information available to readers and for me to collate with my on-going researches on the subject. Thank you! (if you prefer to send information to me via note, that is fine too!, thank you)
4: Although there are some links included in the text, and a few at the end of each article, they are nonetheless very few compared to my usual method of article writing. This is for two reasons: one: it is an introduction rather than a academic thesis, and two: My time is a bit limited at present for personal and ptrofessio0nal reasons... thank you for your understanding in this... Plus, I'm sure that any reader can use appropriate keywords in a search engine to pursue studies or research on this subject. I have included, however, certain references and links to the more unusual useful or curious items, processes and reference works that may, perhaps, be missed or not obvious to track down unless you're an established worker/craftsperson/writer in this particular field. It must be stated also that at the end of the series, together with an index and glossary, there will be a classified selection of links including ones to how to guides on knotting, and a select bibliography, etc...
The Knot is one of those things that is so utterly ubiquitous, and so good at doing it's job in so many, many situations in an almost "invisible" way, that, like the light switch in many of our houses, is only ever truly appreciated when it, in fact, fails to do it's job... and we can no longer see in the dark... or in the case of knots, fall off the rocks we're climbing because of an improperly tied knot; or can no longer fly kites; or load ships with spliced cables on cranes and cargo nets; unable to have your car towed when broken to your garage...not to mention repairing clothes, knitting, crocheting and all the other fibre arts and crafts! without which we would be very cold when venturing outside... OK, enough of the why!, let us go on with the actual introduction to the series and how it's laid out and can be referenced. Firstly the contents to give a rapid overview of the series...
Part One: From Prehistory to "the Fall of Rome"(2.5m. yrs BCE - 500yrs CE)
Part Two: From the "Fall of Rome" to "The Renaissance" (500 - 1490)
Part Three: From "The Renaissance" To "The Age Of Reason" (1490 - 1790)
Part Four: From "The Age Of Reason" to the "Industrial Age's Mass Markets "(1790 - 1890)
Part Five: From the "Puritan Age" To The Age of Nylon Stockings" (1890 - 1950)
Part Six: From The Age of Nylon To "The Arty Hip Generation and Pothangers"(1950 - 1985)
Part Seven: From "The Arty Hip Generation" to "Nanoscience and Golden Spiders"(1985 - 2014)
Afterword: The Future..."(1490 - 1790)
Knotting and Macramé is perhaps not the most obvious subject to be part of a History of Art Project you might think?, but the history of “fibres” and, therefore, knotting and macramé, is a huge , multi-faceted tapestry of such complexity that doing it the justice it deserves would in fact require an encyclopaedic set of volumes which would, effectively, be a history of the world... and everything in it! ...such is the actual relationship and effects that knots have had and still have, for the most part, with every area of human endeavour on Earth.
The Introduction and Contents to this series, to put it into context, will hopefully give the reader an idea of the variety, amazing usefulness, and relevance of knotting, particularly within the context of Art History and Artisanship on DeviantART. The parts are split into bite-sized sections to spread out along the timeline created by the CR Art History Team, starting with Prehistory to 500 CE, included with this first section and introduction. Each part will be in three sections: A: An overview and introduction to the period; B: References to the uses and evolution of knots within the time period; C: An illustrated look at the actual knots involved or used in parts A + B with any appropriate pictures of them in use if required.
OK, so why do I make these bold statements about knotting and it's contributions? Simply this: if it were not for knots, humankind would not have advanced anywhere near as rapidly as has happened, as well as the fact that there are a vast amount of things that would not be available to us without knots. I posted a notice in front of my knotting and macramé stall, on Exeter's quayside during our summer festival here, with a statement on it declaring that anyone who could mention something that didn't rely on knots for it's existence, manufacture or presence in our lives, directly or indirectly at no more than 2 removes, could take one of my sailor's knotted keyrings for free.... I only parted with keyrings for cash.... I could mention a list to convince the reader here but it would simply repeat stuff covered in later parts.... so please enjoy this series on knots and I hope it amuses, informs or opens eyes to a hidden and much underestimated area of earths amazing creativity. OK, without further ado, let us get into Part One.....
Nobody yet really knows even an approximate date of the emergence of primitive fibres, or any material used in the same way for similar purposes except in a very vague way. Evidence for the existence of rope, sinews etc, like textiles, and other artefacts like primitive dwellings, wooden tools and so on, is rare indeed, since the ravages of time and biodegradation tend to obliterate any remains, except under exceptional circumstances, ( like being buried in a peat bog which preserves many biological materials). Like textiles, many of the early indications of the use and manufacture of ropes, threads or cords, together with any evidence or examples of knots, come from representations or impressions on some other medium or artefact like papyrus, cave paintings, see fig 2, ceramics and the like. The earliest “Period” in Japan’s history is in fact named after a type of pottery, see fig 1 below, that was decorated by pressing rope into the soft clay, and is called: “Jomon”. (Jomon=cord) The earliest remains, for example, of a spear with a stone tip whipped on to its end using a form of cord or sinew, predates the arrival of our our species, (homo sapiens,), according to common belief: our species: 200k yrs old; the spear: 250 - 500k yrs old....! Some of the earliest evidence of chinese knotting were preserved on bronze vessels dating to roughly 481–221 BCE, in Buddhist carvings of about 400CE, and on silk paintings from the Han period: 206 BCE–CE6
Nettle, (please see fig 3), a very old plant indeed, may have been the original plant source for one of the very earliest cords/fibres. It was known to have been used for lashing spear-points to wooden shafts in neolithic times. (New Stone Age 40,000 - 4,000BCE ). Lime is another ancient plant which has a long history as a source of cord, (its bark was cut and twisted into serviceable strips), in a similar way to long plant leaves, see fig 4, and was used in England at least until the Middle Ages on a regular basis, as was nettle ... as well as being regularly eaten as a salad and drunk by many as a tea. Flax was another old plant used thousands of years ago, especially well-known as used by the ancient Egyptians for many useful purposes, see fig 5-5a, and is still in widespread use today for things as diverse as upholstery work, bookbinding, weaving into cloth (linen), as well as it's oil used in capsules for health purposes and so on. (It is a very good sustainable resource... comparable to hemp. an example of flax twine may be seen in use as the material for my boots here: fav.me/d2opgzg ) Hemp use, by the way, dates back to the Stone Age, with hemp fibre imprints found in pottery shards in China and Taiwan over 7,000 years old.
3: One of the very few "tools" available:
There isn’t much other than scant theories for the pre-history period of knot use, but it’s fairly well established / believed to be, a common fact of life in pre-history due to the fact that knots are almost the only thing that doesn’t rely on complex tools, chemical processes or other stages of manufacture like most other objects. There were flint tools, and wooden and stone tools of other sorts available from early times as we all know, but one of the most significant "tools" available from early times was the "knot" in it's loosest and most general sense, for lashing spars of wood together to drag supplies for nomadic cultures, constructing huts and other dwellings and storage facilities as well as creating nets and traps for hunting and fishing etc. Other uses as humankind progressed to an agricultural rather than hunter gatherer-based economy were tethering cattle, creating aids to irrigation, and using cords to tie produce together for transport and storage.
4: Available evidence:
The spread of cord technology or manufacture isn’t an exact science as far as a precise “Pre-history” is concerned, for reasons already cited above; so let us leave this period and continue to ancient times, where a little more evidence is available; although, before the Middle Ages, other than the major civilizations like Africa, China, Egypt etc, evidence becomes very scant indeed for any serious historical article or essay, again, for reasons already mentioned... before continuing with that we'll have a quick look at typical pre-historic evidence that is available. this evidence came principally in two forms: Archaological interments or discoveries in storehouses, libraries and on walls etc in the form of paintings, that have been dug up:
5: Origins and Dastardly Deeds:
Some of the earliest evidence for knots comes from excavated bodies in sites all over Europe and the rest of the world including some where the skeleton showed that cord had in some way been responsible for the murder of the deceased like the Lindow Man, or as he is fondly referred to "Pete Marsh" due to where he was found.One of the bodies had a bow and arrows accompanying it, together with an arrow buried into the body itself which may have been the instrument of his passing. Various other bits and pieces have testified to human's ancient relationship with murder as a last resort, and, sadly, often as a first one during it's history.
6: Huntin', Shootin' and Fishin'...
The hunting of big game began with Homo Erectus about 1, 600,000 years ago.. and the caves at Lascaux, (please see Fig 2, above). in France, have some of the best examples of hunters using bows or spears from palaeolithic times (approx 17,000 BCE)... so we can infer with circumspection, some use of knots from that period... (see although glues were often used to “cement” cords into place. Archaeologists are now beginning to suggest that the use of ropes and knots may date between 250,000 and 2,500,000 years old. Speculatively therefore, this would even predate the use of fire, (400,000 BCE), the invention of the wheel, (3,000BCE), and most other tools and inventions that in fact were aided in their birth by the humble knot.
As time passed, societies and life became more and more sophisticated and agriculture developed. With agriculture came the need for irrigation, and one of the most widespread devices used to relay water from a source like a nearby river, to the desired field, via a series of gravity-fed channels, used cord and knots to create it. It is still commonly in use today and is called a "Shadouf" see figs 6-6a. There are many uses that cord and knots were put to in agriculture, just as they are today including building types of corrals and animal shelters, as well as ways of preventing livestock going into areas where they could trample crops; binding products together like straw, and root crops that had stems or leaves attached after harvesting, a bit like the way onions are tied into bunches nowadays; knots were also used to tie loads of produce onto animals for transportation etc, as well as in the cords used to lift bags of grain for storage in elevated storehouses... In short, cords and knots played an indispensible part in the production of food and crops, and a farm without some cord around was a bit like a car without any wheels, it might feel comfortable for a while... but wasn’t at all practical.
2: Military uses: Ghostly Kites and catapults... (See Plate C)
Moving on from the simple Bow and Arrow, spears and hand-axes, (of flints lashed to wooden handles), as societies became more complex, so did their defenders when moulded into a professional force instead of militias being formed to counter attacks as and when they happened. And a professional force needs the best weapons they can muster and many of these early weapons of destruction against other armies, or for seige purposes, relied on cords, ropes and their accompanying knots, to function. Machines like the Graeco-Roman Ballista, slingshots and other variations on those themes, were pressed into service in early human battles. On an individual soldiers level, slings and bows were commonly still in use easily up to 500CE, and those who organised the roman legions even made sure that each roman foot soldier carried a hank of rope with him, as rope was was considered such a basic necessity for a soldier’s use and survival. In China kites were sometimes used to provide an aerial view of the field of battle. A man was lashed to the huge kite and hauled aloft. Another use of the kite was to frighten your opponents by painting frightening masks which in twilight had an electrifying effect on the superstitous mind of the time, (that took the idea of ghosts and ancester spirits as a normal routine idea); One feature that could make kites really scary was the use of “singing” kites that had bent poles with taut cords incorporated ino the design of the kite whicvh would vibrate when at altitude, and create screeching sounds, these latter were I believe, invented in Korea. Naturally archers figured massively in ancient armies. The Chinese used bamboo fibres for their bowstrings, but then discovered hemp, and the fact it made a huge difference to efficiency and set aside large tracts of land to cultivate it.
3: Architecture: carpentry stone and knots... (See Plate B)
Ever since people moved out of caves into huts and houses, cords and knots were used to create their structure, or facilitate their erection. By the time that lartge buildings, relatively, were in evidence, scaffolds or staging would be used to provide access to workers. You can find here an excellent though short, pdf article on bamboo scaffolding with great contemporary photos of construction sites using knotted/lashed scaffolding and roofing... Plaster, wood and other materials used in construction were delivered to the site using waggons or animals having their loads tied to them, as well as those materials being hoisted aloft using primitive pulleys or derricks. As well as the foregoing, The way that many civilisations planned out their cities or surveyed their roads etc, used cords that were part of their surveying instruments like the “groma” please see figs 7-8 above. Naturally another simple knotted item was the “Plumb line” to ensure the vertical precision of buildings and walls etc. Another simple device for planning was a 12 knot cord with which you could by pegging it out, given a little euclidean geometry knowledge, allow basic shapes and right-angles, isosceles triangles and so on to be marked out on wood, stone or the ground...
4: Domestic use: (See Plate D)
There was a huge array of cord/rope knotted items used in domestic situations from slinging children in various ways onto their mothers whilst they worked at spinning or weaving etc, lines that washing was hung on, tethers for goats and other animals including dogs that acted as guardians. Much clothing was of course fastened using knots, as were sandals and bags that carried personal effects. Games and sports figured knots quite often including primitive hoops made from cord, tribal games using forms of bolass, (a weight attached to a cord), in various ways. Other uses included hanging items out of reach of children, animals or potential thieves, as well as a practical method of storing food and fruit etc in net bags that hung on hooks. Naturally enough, sewing and the knots used to finish and secure the sewing were commonly found in domestic use. Making-do in early societies and civilisations was a question of survival rather than a preference. People often made their own cord and small ropes, having necessities made for you was usually reserved for the wealthy. .Many items were made by specialists and the formula or process was often a closely guarded secret... one of the reasons that progress, in certain ways, has been very slow and laborious for the vast majority of mistrustful humans, a sad fact of life on earth.
5: Trade and Transportation: Sewn goods carried by sewn boats and silk... (See Plate E)
Money was in various forms in various cultures including trade beads, and chinese and asian coins that had holes in the centre to allow them to be strung for storage by the mint making them plus ease of carrying them by the individual. Naturally enough there were accepted ways of tying down loads on various beasts of burden like camels, mules, horses, bullocks and the like as well as waggons and boats or barges pulled from alongside tthe rivers they floated on. for international trade, a whole set of cords and knots were developed to facilitate sail management on boats or ships that plied their trade between mediterranean cultures and further afield... Another aspect of trade was the measuring of goods at markets. A common method was to use scales or balances to measure grain or other substances. Many of these were held in the hand and made from simple wood, cord and with a sack or bag of some sort at each end these date back to at least 25,000 yrs BCE according to paintings found in Egypt (25th dynasty) In rough terrain where waggons couldn’t travel and where loads were excessive for animals, an “A” frame was devised which was poles lashed and knotted together which was tied onto horses or other animals and dragged behind them... a lot more weight could be carried in this fashion and you didn’;t have to worry about the rough terrain breaking axles or wooden wheels.
An interesting facet of marine architecture was the fact that some boats were actually sewn together with cord. The actual hull planks were tied together and then caulked with tar. Tim Severin actually reproduced one of these trade voyages including building the boat using sewn-plank methods in his “Sindbad” Voyage. There were many types of vessels or sophisticated “rafts”, coracles and the like that have no precise date of conception that owe their ability to function to the humble knot. Switching subjects yet again, but still within trade..., in the West, for a long time, silk was considered more precious than gold and it remained very rare and expensive. To the best of our knowledge, the Roman emperor Elagabalus (218-222) was the only Roman to wear a dress of pure silk. The westerners called the Chinese simply the “Silk People” (Seres); the capital of the Han dynasty, Chang'an, was known as Silk City. When the Han dynasty collapsed in the third century, the trade between east and west was reduced to a minimum. The transport of this silk and many other precious commodoties like spices, gold and gums, was along the famous “Silk Road” which has a fascinating history just on it’s own. Anyway, the diminution of trade in silk was not the end of the Silk Route, however, because the West remained interested in buying gums and spices. When the T'ang (618-907) dynasty re-stabilized China, the long-distance trade route was reanimated. Its most famous traveller was Marco Polo, whose story is invaluable.
6: Art and Design: Knots, the universal motif... (see Plate F)
There were many uses for knots, braids, and un-knotted rope as decoration in early times . As mentioned above, rope and cords of different thicknesses could be used to “impress” patterns into the soft clay of pots and bowls before they were fired. Hair was another area where braids and “knots” figured as styles of fashion. Knot forms and braid or plait forms were often also used as flat designs on walls, floors (using mosaics etc) and objects that were carved from bone or wood. Simple knotted nets were used as doorway curtains in some shops to restrict access yet create a pleasing effect for customers. Jewellry used knots a lot to create status symbols and aid attractiveness for prospective spouses of either sex. Technology was fairly limited notwithstanding the advances made by Chinese, Persians, Romans and other developing societies, so many aspects of decorative use awaited the printing press, more sophisticated glass and ceramic processes and so on; suffice it to say that the knot was a widespread motif throughout the planet as can be testified to by the similarity of decorative images from ancient times be they african, mediterranean, polynesian or bolivian.
7: Religion and mythology, proverbs etc. “Take care!... (See Plate G)
Religion used and uses, knots for everything from tying amulets on the priesthood and followers, decorating the entrances to temples as well as supplying symbols to remind the faithful of relationships and concepts related to their set of beliefs. A particular aspect of knots was their use in ceremony and processes like spellcasting. Although much of this aspect of the uses of knots came in the next two time periods in this series, there was already practices like self-flagellation with ropes in certain sects, other sects used knotted cords to symbolise things like the trinity, in christian mysticism, by using simple cord belts with 3 knots tied in them. The Japanese hung rice straw ropes at the entranceways to their temples both on the temple proper, and on the “Torii” (archways) that marked the beginning of hallowed ground in the Shinto religion where rocks trees, mountains and so on were spiritually imbued lik Graeco-roman tradition or pantheon. And we mustn’t forget the role that knotted bell-ropes, (another Chinese invention!), played in calling the faithful to prayer as well as ringing out the time of day or sounding alarms for the town or village. I shan’t insert much in the way of proverbs etc here as they mostly developed later on in our timeline and found their flowering just after the golden age of sailing and the clipper ships...
As far as mythology is concerned, one of the most famous tales concerning knots is that of Gordias. According to ancient Greek legend, a poor peasant called Gordias arrived with his wife in a square in Phrygia in an ox cart. As chance would have it, an oracle had previously informed the populace that their future king would come into town riding in a wagon. Seeing Gordias, therefore, the people made him king. In gratitude, Gordias dedicated his ox cart to Zeus, tying it up with a highly intricate knot - - the Gordian knot. Another oracle -- or maybe the same one, foretold that the person who untied the knot would rule all of Asia. The problem of untying the Gordian knot resisted all attempted solutions until the year 333 B.C., when Alexander the Great -- not known for his lack of ambition when it came to ruling Asia -- cut through it with a sword Finally, the Bhuddhist tradition uses a bknot motif to symbolise, sSince the knot has no beginning or end, the wisdom of the Buddha. other interpretations include the endless cycle of re-incarnation and the integration into a perfect symbiosis of various attributes desirable in practising bhuddists eg: compassion.
Another legend is that of Perseus and the Minotaur where perseus had the help of the King’s daughter to help him exit the labyrinth after killing the half-bull / half-human creature near the centre) Medea suggested that he tied a ball of thread at the entrance and unravel it till he found the poor creature; he then need only retrace his steps using the thread as a guide. Yet another tale concerning cords and threads is that of the unfortunate Ariadne, or, in some countries Arachne, who challenged one of the goddesses to a contest in weaving; she lost naturaslly and the goddess condemned her to constantly weave by turning her into a spider... which is why the family are called Arachnids. There will be more on Spiders in the Last major part (7) of this series with some of the most breathtaking pictures of weaving you will ever see!!!
Ok, That concludes our general, and very cursory, look at various aspects of knots and fibres up till 500 BCE. It remains only to take a look at the actual knots used during the time period of this first article. The observant among you will have noticed that I inserted the words: “Take care” as part of the subtitle of this sub-section... I haven’t forgotten to refer to it, I’ve simply decided to insert it in the next part of this series as it’ will be useful for several reasons, in that section.
Note: Please see Plate H for illustrations referred to in the text.
Okay so we’ve taken a very cursory look at some of the uses of knots in prehistoric to ancient times, but what were these knots? Well,... the simplest and “probably” the first knot in prehistory was the overhand knot (A) probably followed by the granny knot (B), and/ or reef knot ( C ). How long it took for hominids to work out how to create a “slipped” knot, for ease of undoing it, we have no idea, but it’s likely that it coincided with the first use of thonged sandals and clothes because waterlogged knots are not an easy item to undo, especially if pulled tight. It became easier to tie knots as the technology of creating threads and ropes became more sophisticated and they achieved regular thicknesses. The early ones were usually unequal in thickness very often, as each person spinning, or laying(twisting) rope, had a different touch, tension and method of production.
When livestock became a factor for societies and daily life, knots like the clove hitch () were probably designed as there was a need to anchor your cattle so as not to wander off or tread all over your priceless small plot of crops etc. |Netting was a craft that was probably responsible for creating a few knots as the nets had to be easily repaired and tied in the first place. The reef knot and granny knot were likely used but the reef has a tendency to come apart fairly easily and thus the nets holes became irregular. Another area of knotting usefulness was weaving. occasionally threads would break and knots that didn’t collapse were very important. eventually, with the advent of weaving machines, (looms) special knots would be found where the ends would all lie in the same directiuon so as not to get stuck in, or clog, the machine, but thats for later parts of this series.
Since fishermen generally used nets more than angling, so there weren’t many knots specifically associated with angling, plus, there wasn’t the need for special knots for slippery nylon, rayon and other polymer lines that are the hallmark of modern angling. The “Solomon Knot” when more sophisticated, and made from one single line, was sometimes used in costume like the early shinto priests and some Chinese costume for the wealthy; speaking of which, we are still not sure when the first Chinese button knots evolved. I for one wouldn’t put it past the Chinese to have created them by the 5th century CE so I have popped one in the Plate, (H), that goes with this section it probably evolved from the chinese “double coin”, also, therefore, included. As for the rest, I have included the “Larks Head” as it is a very simple process and the barrel knot as it’s a simple extension of the overhand knot and there is some evidence, as cited above, for it’s use in monks habits and as an adjustable closure. We’ll cover the closure use and other items in the next part.
Written by Peter-The-Knotter for the Art History Project
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