December 17th, 2013
There is something daunting about knots that get people all tied up –and usually it’s a mangled mess rather than an elegant bow. If you did not grow up sailing boats, fishing, climbing, pitching tents, or joining the special forces –and most of us did not- chances are that you were never taught how to tie knots.
My childhood was certainly a knot-free existence. When the need arose for me to tie something together, I often found that my fingers decided to go on strike and the result was something out of a Jackson Pollock painting. Luckily, it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience as there was always tape to back up my less than perfect packaging.
Then about 15 years ago I finally decided that I wanted to learn how to put on a kimono by myself. My mother was so happy that one of her three daughters had finally shown a faint interest in the passion of her life while she was still alive. She spent many hours teaching me how to dress in a kimono and this was when I was suddenly confronted with the need to learn the square knot.
The square knot, or reef knot as it is also known, is used to tie the cord that holds the thick belt around the waist of a kimono. If you don’t get the knot tied properly, it looks funny and there is also the grave possibility that your belt might fall down in public. So to prevent such mishaps, I spent numerous hours practicing the square knot.
A few months ago when I was experimenting with different ways of using a furoshiki, I discovered that the square knot is also used for tying and carrying a furoshiki. So this knot is indeed very useful to have in your inventory of knot skills.
On a recent day that I was carrying a furoshiki, I discussed with an American friend about how often the square knot is applied in the use and making of craft. My friend told me about a ‘thief knot’ that looks like a simple square knot but has the ends on the opposing sides. By hiding the ends, if an unsuspecting thief opens the bag and ties it back into a square knot, the tampering is revealed. I also read that cooks on ships used this ‘thief knot’ to tie up delicacies like sugar to find out if the cabin boy was secretly helping himself to these goodies.
This story made me curious about knots, not just in terms of their functions but also how they connect to the cultures and histories of people from different parts of the world.
In Japan, there is a type of knot called a seal knot or fujimusubi, which is used to tie a bag carrying a tea container for tea ceremony. As tea ceremonies were elaborate rituals practiced by warring feudal lords, some complicated and decorative knots were used to tie the bag, making it almost impossible to be tied back by any outsider, allowing the lord presiding over the ceremony to know if anyone opened the bag to poison the tea.
The American thief knot and the Japanese seal knot were invented to serve similar purposes of addressing the lack of the trust that were uniquely tied to the cultural and historical circumstances of their times.
I also wonder about the origins of highly decorative knots. As some of the tea bags used by Japanese feudal lords had very ornamental seal knots, were other elaborate knots created as a way to signal that the contents they were protecting should not be removed? The charms or omamori that you can purchase at Japanese shrines and temples, for instance, have very ornamental knots. They usually contain scrolls, but we are told never to open them. A beautiful knot psychologically hold us back from trying to untie it, especially if we cannot tie it back together again.
Studying knots and the knotting process can also shed light into the lives of people that employed them for everyday activities. In hand sewing, for example, my mother taught me the loom knot or hatamusubi to add thread by linking. She said that this method saved thread, and was also cleaner and stronger than tying the thread off and starting anew. I recall rolling my eyes thinking about the negligible amount of ‘saving’ of the thread that would result. But now that I think about it, this method was passed on to her from her grandmother who lived more than a century ago when times were less prosperous, and consequently any way to be more frugal was valuable.
In perfect synchronization with my current infatuation with knots, my Studio Kotokoto knot ace partner Kathryn and I recently uploaded a YouTube video demonstrating how to efficiently tie a wooden box for ceramics from Japan. The video shows that when knot tying is done perfectly, it is indeed beautiful to watch.
The more I learn about knots, I find that each one represents a refined wisdom passed on from our ancestors about style, functionality, and safekeeping of our most valued possessions. I hope that this blog and video inspires your curiosity in thinking over the humble knots that surround us in our everyday lives.