Tied Up

Geoffrey Budworth knew he wanted to tie knots when he was 11 years old. As a Sea Scout (like the Boy Scouts) on England's south coast, he had learned a few basic knots. But then he saw a decoratively knotted bell rope one day and was "smitten," he says.

A bell rope is the rope on which a ship's bell is traditionally hung.

Even today, sailors compete to make complicated knot decorations for bell ropes. It's a traditional craft. "They are both practical and ornamental," Mr. Budworth says. "All knots, however decorative, always start practical."

But when young Geoffrey asked his scoutmaster to teach him how to do the bell rope he'd seen, the man replied: "Don't you worry about that, son. That's much too difficult for you."

The scoutmaster was probably right. But Budworth wasn't put off. Today this English ex-policeman writes books and articles about knots. He is co-founder of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. He thinks there "are a lot of people out there who don't yet know they are knot tiers." He'd like to "lure them out into the open" with the 80 knots in his recently published "The Complete Book of Knots" (New York: Lyons & Burford, 1997).

New knots are still being invented

"Complete," Burford says, is "misleading." The book contains at least 10 new knots. Knot tiers are still inventing knots. But many people who believe they have discovered a new one, really have not. "Discovering a new knot is like spotting a new comet," Budworth says. "It happens, but not often."

He wants people to know that knot tying is not a "dying art" done only by sailors on clipper ships. His book does start with a section on knots used in boating. They have amazing names, like monkey's fist and bowline in the bight. The rest of his book covers knots for camping, caving, climbing, fishing, and around the house. This last section includes some tricks: the finger trap trick, the impossible knot trick, and the threading-the-needle trick.

You have to study the book's diagrams very carefully and follow the instructions. A bit of history is included with each knot.

Sailors don't have a monopoly on knots. "There were as many knots tied ashore as were ever tied by sailors," Budworth says. He points to special knots used by gunners, millers, anglers, and weavers.

The newest knot in his book was invented by a weaver. Peter Collingwood wanted to tie the ends of threads together and cut off the loose ends. The boa knot is a hybrid knot. It's a combination of the constrictor and the strangle knot. (See why they named it boa?)

"Usually such knots are horrendous things to tie," Budworth says. "But this one is very slick. It's one of these things that can be done in seconds, almost like a sleight-of-hand conjuring trick."

Budworth has been a magician as well as a policeman. As he demonstrated knots for me, I felt I was watching a magician.

Less than 1.5 seconds per knot

Though speed isn't everything, it is astonishing when a knot is "performed" quickly. According to the "The Guinness Book of World Records," Clinton Bailey Sr. of Pacific City, Ore., has the knot-tying record. On April 13, 1977, he made a bowline, clove hitch, round turn and two half hitches, sheepshank, sheet bend, and square (reef) knot on individual ropes in 8.1 seconds. Even members of the International Guild of Knot Tyers can't approach that speed. Their best efforts seldom break 20 seconds.

Budworth is sure knots have lots of practical uses, even in a world with Superglue, Velcro, zip fasteners, and safety pins. When such "chrome-plated gadgets" break down they are useless. And if you're on a boat 1,000 miles from any shop, you may discover that the right knots will do the job at least as well, sometimes better, and cost a lot less. And rope is reusable.

"Knots are also for people who are into puzzles," Budworth says. "Simply tying some of the knots is a pleasure in itself."

He mentions another puzzle: Why do knots work? "Clearly it's something to do with internal friction," he replies. But nobody seems to know for sure.

Tests show that some knots weaken the rope's strength. Tying a particular knot in a rope may make the rope less than half as strong. Other knots reduce a rope's breaking strength by 40 percent, 10 percent, or not at all.

Strength is one thing. Security is another. You don't want knots that come undone (or "capsize") too easily.

A new kind of rope can make old knots ineffective or unpredictable. "It's climbers," Budworth says, "who are the people inventing new knots these days." And an insecure knot is not something most climbers appreciate.

* For more information, write: The International Guild of Knot Tyers, Nigel Harding, Hon. Secretary, 3 Walnut Tree Meadow, Stonham Aspal, Stowmarket, Suffolk IP 14 6DF, England, UK.

The Boa Knot

Knot expert Geoffrey Budworth calls this very simple knot 'the ultimate binding.' It's also practically brand-new. It was invented in 1996 by Peter Collingwood, a weaver and writer in Britain. Dr. Collingwood was looking for a good knot to use to lash together cords that had to be cut very short. He came up with the boa knot. He uses it for threads, but it's also a good way to bind up sticks, pencils, rulers - whatever.

1. Make three coils as shown. The coils can be big or small, depending on what you're trying to bind together.

2. Now simply twist the coils into a figure-eight.

3. Slide the loops onto the object or objects to be lashed.

4. Make the knot snug by pulling on the ends. Neaten any misaligned cords in the knot.

Threading-the-Needle Trick

Without a word, the knot magician wraps a short length of cord around his or her thumb three or four times and makes a small loop. He pinches the loop between his thumb and forefinger. Then he tries to thread the other end of the cord through the loop. He tries a few times, but pretends that he can't manage to do it. When he pulls the cord taut, however, the cord suddenly appears inside the loop! The 'needle' has been threaded. But how?

What really happens

When you pull on the cord, it slides up through the bottom of the loop you're pinching. One of the turns around your thumb will disappear during the trick, but it's doubtful anyone will notice.

This trick may look confusing at first, but be patient and study the diagrams. You'll need a length of cord about two feet long. Use a thickish cord, like clothesline or sash cord. Practice the trick thoroughly (professionals practice in front of a mirror) before you perform it.

We've drawn the trick as it would appear to the person doing it. When you do it, keep your fingers straight and together to mask the view of your audience.

- This and the boa knot on the facing page are from 'The Complete Book of Knots,' by Geoffrey Budworth

The Secret:

Allow the cord to slide up through the bottom of the loop.

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