A lot of people, especially younger ones, haven’t learned the rope and knot tricks that generations past took for granted. Knowing how to tie a few basic knots will serve anyone well, whether you’re tying timber down to your car roof to get it across town or getting yourself out of a bad situation such as a house fire or flash flood. Less perilously, quilters, waterfowl hunters, campers and anglers find the knowledge of knot tying useful.
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Think of these 10 and their cousins as survival knots, then, an essential part of the tool kit for negotiating the wild world outside the door.
Understand The Math Of Knots
For compact, two-dimensional surfaces without boundary, if every loop can be continuously tightened to a point, then the surface is topologically homeomorphic to a two-sphere.
If you don’t understand the preceding statement, you’re in very good company. Mathematicians puzzled over this hallmark of topology for a very long time, in time adding to it a stipulation that if it holds for two dimensions, it must hold for three dimensions as well.
Topology is the geometry of objects in a deformed space, such as a loop in a sphere or an overhand knot. Think of it this way: Most of the geometric shapes we’re familiar with are pretty regular in shape, squares and triangles and rectangles, and are easy to describe mathematically. But geometrical shapes can be made up of curves instead of straight lines. The most familiar curve is the circle, in which the curve closes each point along the way at equal distance from the center. The ellipse, parabola and hyperbola are also examples of curves.
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In topology, a knot is defined as a closed, non-self-intersecting curve that is embedded in three dimensions and cannot be untangled to produce a simple loop—what’s known as an “unknot.” Again, if you don’t understand this, don’t worry. Many highly accomplished mathematicians steer clear of knot theory.
Imagine a time, deep in the past, when one of our ancestors picked up a sapling, bent it, tied it and had a eureka moment: “Ah-ha! This has promise!” The knot that ancestor tied was almost certainly the simplest one, indeed, the very basis of a whole family of knots and loops, namely the overhand knot. To form it, take a length of rope in your left hand (if you’re right-handed, which we’ll assume throughout). Make a loop at the end, crossing it under the rope. Then take the end and pass it through the loop, going over the bottom part and over the top part. Push the end to reduce slack, then pull it to tighten the loop.
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This overhand knot can come loose with a lot of movement, but for ordinary, quick-and-dirty purposes, such as tying a gate closed, it’s highly adaptable. For example, a double overhand knot joining two ropes makes a fast way to lengthen a line.
If you’ve ever had the contents of a duffel bag spill out all over the floor, you’ll know the value of a good square knot. The same is true if you tire of bending down to tie your shoelace. The square knot, developed by sailors to tie down sails, is supremely basic: right over left, left over right.
For practice, take a length of 1-foot-long board. Pass a foot of rope over and then under it. Take one end and pass it over and then under the top length of rope. Now take both ends and bring them together. Pass the left end under the right end and the right end under the left end. Pull both ends and the square will tighten.
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Most of us, thinking we’re making a square knot, tie our shoelaces in some variant of a slipknot, and in any event a square knot isn’t the most secure knot there is. For that reason, our shoelaces are always coming untied. Instead, try this. Take a shoelace. Bring both ends together. Cross the left end over the right, then under. Tighten. Now make a bight of the right end—a loop, that is, that doesn’t cross over the line. Pass the left end under and then over the right loop. Tighten. Presto! You’ve made a reef knot, one sign of which is that the lace lies flat and in a straight line across the top of the shoe, resisting loosening.
The half hitch is the granddaddy of the huge family of knots called hitches, many of which are barely knots at all. They’re used to tie down ropes loosely so that they can be quickly untied. A cowboy moseying into town isn’t going to use an elaborate knot to tie up his horse, but instead is going to throw a casual line over a hitching post so that the horse knows to stand still for a minute, not stay put forever.
For practice, take a 1-foot-long length of dowel or 2×4. Lay it down so that it is perpendicular to you. Pass a rope over and then under it. Pass the rope end over the rope. Tighten it, and drape the leading end over the dowel.
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Obviously, this comes undone easily. Double up on this movement, though, and you have two half hitches, which gives you extra security. This is commonly used to tie down tent lines to stakes. A three-pass Buntline hitch is even more secure, taking us into territory where we’d need to work at the hitch to get it to come loose. Even so, it’s useful to think of hitches as temporary ties.
In just that spirit, a timber hitch was originally used to drag a log away from its felling site, an operation in which the logger would prize safety but, because time is of the essence, would also want to be able to free up his rope quickly. To practice, loop the running or free end of a rope around a tree. Pass it over the other end—the standing end, as it’s called. Now loop the end over itself once, twice and three times. Pull the free end and then pull the standing end to tighten all the way around.You can make as many loops as you care to, incidentally, though more than eight invokes the law of diminishing returns, while fewer than three makes the hitch susceptible to slipping.
A hitch ties a rope fast to something—a post, a tree limb or the like. A bend, on the other hand, joins two rope ends. The Carrick bend is a kind of square knot joining two ropes together, and it’s especially useful when those ropes are thick. Form a loop with the end of one rope. Pass the end of the other rope under the loop, then over the end of the first rope. Pass it under the first rope, then over the loop, then under its own rope. Hold the first rope above the loop and pull the second rope down to tighten it. In practicing the Carrick bend, it can be helpful to use two different colors of rope to help keep them straight.
A sheet bend is useful for joining ropes of different thicknesses. It’s easily untied, but is less inclined to slip than most hitches. Form a loop in the thicker of the two ropes, keeping one end short. While practicing, lay it flat on a table and make a “J” out of the rope. Run the free end of the smaller rope under and through the loop, then over the short end, around both ends, over the longer end and then under itself. Tighten up the loop by hand before putting any pressure on it, since this slips easily before tightening.
As the name suggests, a fisherman’s knot is used with fishing line—when angling, to be sure, but when doing things like hanging wind chimes or a picture frame, too. Pass the free end of the line through the hook, leaving a generous loop. Now wrap the free end around the line five or six times. Pass the free end back under and then over the loop. Pull it to tighten. The bowline knot, which follows, is a cousin of this simple construct, as is the surgeon’s knot.
A bowline knot does just one thing: It forms and then locks a loop so that it can’t collapse. Take a generous length of rope. Make a small loop, turning it over on itself on the right hand side. Take the free end and pass it under and then over the line. Now go under the standing end, then over the loop and under it. Pull the free end and the standing end. Tighten it.
Let’s all hope we’re lucky enough not to require doing our own suturing. All the same, a surgeon’s knot is very useful for many applications, making it especially easy to join two lines. Double each of them. Overlap the two lines so that the two ends of one hang out to the left, the two ends of the other to the right. Bring them together and loop them over, under and then over again. Loop the free right end over three more times, like a timber hitch. Now pull tight. That’s a knot that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
A lashing is a good way to hold beams and poles in place until they’re more securely bolted or tied down—and a good lashing with thick enough rope can last as long as a timber, as long as both are kept dry. Cross two poles at right angles, the vertical passing over the horizontal. (For practice, a couple of 1-foot-long dowels are good.) Tie a clove hitch on the vertical member. A clove hitch will come from the left—pass the free end over the pole, then behind it, then over itself, then behind the pole again, then in front of the pole and under the rope. Pull both ends to tighten.
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Now take the free end and pass it under the horizontal pole. Pass it over the vertical member, then under the horizontal member on the left side. Wrap it in front of the vertical member below the horizontal member, then over the horizontal member. Wrap it in this way two more times. Now repeat the process, wrapping the vertical member in front and behind. The knot will indeed be square in shape by the time you’re finished. Tie it off with a half hitch.
Knot Know-How Resources
Originally published in 1944, Clifford Ashley’s Book of Knots, now called The Ashley Book of Knots, is the bible of fans of ropes and strings and their ways. An encyclopedia containing an astonishing 4,000 variations, it lists for $85—not cheap but essential for serious students.
Des Pawson’s Knots: The Complete Visual Guide is an easy-to-follow compendium teaching the hundred most basic knots; it’s a quarter the price of Ashley, though of course less comprehensive, and ought to find a place on any serious knot-lover’s shelf as well.
ProKnot (J.E. Sherry) is an iPhone app that sells for just two dollars and offers animated, step-by-step instructions for making 102 fishing and rope knots. It’s a good starter and a handy reference.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.