I use knots every day working as a stagehand and rigger at the New York Stock Exchange. I use knots to hold things up, to hold them down, and to keep them from flying away. I use them to tie ropes to other ropes, to tie banners to sticks, to keep ropes from running through pulleys or keep myself from falling off balconies, to tighten loads, to keep my tools from flying away.
Things get smaller. There's more computer showing you this type than was used to send Neil Armstrong to the moon. Of course, that may just be saying a lot about some talented guys with slide rules.
Democritus thought that if you kept breaking things down, eventually you'd get to a size where you couldn't break them down any more. He called the indivisible thing an atom. For me, the smallest things that exist are things you can hold but still manipulate. In terms of line, that might be a little under 1/8", the size of venetian blind chord. Which we call trick line. You can't usefully go much smaller than trick line.
We use trick line to tie drops, painted or printed cloth banners, to battens, which is what we call sticks. Usually we tie them on with the same knot you use to tie your shoelaces. If you were to get technical, you might call that a hitch, though the knots used would be called slippery square knots. Or overhands with two slippery half hitches.
I first learned knots after my family moved from suburban Southern California when I was fourteen. In Southern California I knew nothing practical whatsoever. I moved with my family to Crescent City, a small coastal Northern California town in the middle of the last great stand of giant redwoods. Everyone there knew how to fish and shoot and to cut down trees. They grew up knowing, the information passed genetically from father to son, mother to daughter. I bought a Cub Scout handbook and taught myself the bowline, the king of knots. The bowline makes a loop that doesn't constrict when it has a load on it, by the way. I have been learning, examining or using knots ever since.
I learned most of the knots I use when I was in the Coast Guard. Once, when a friend of mine and I were drinking beer, we decided to see how many knots we knew. We ran out of beer at 150. That is probably an impractical number of knots to know.
I only use four knots on a regular basis: the bowline, the clove hitch, the square knot, and the sheet bend. Actually, I don't even use the sheet bend very much.
I still know eleven variations of the bowline. I know three different way to tie the "normal" bowline, not counting behind my back.
Which sort of begs the question, why not use velcro?
A good knot has three qualities. It's easy to tie, it holds well, and it's easy to untie. A fourth quality you might hope for is that is doesn't weaken the line too much. But all knots weaken the line they're tied in to some degree. The bowline retains about 85% of the line's strength.
There are three kinds of things you can tie with line: knots, bends, and hitches.
A knot is recursive—it ties to itself. The simplest knot you can tie, the overhand knot, is usually the first knot you learn. The one you learn before you learn to tie your shoes.
Bends tie two lines together. Almost everyone knows the square knot, even if they don't know they know it. It's the knot you use to tie your shoelaces. More particularly, it's the knot you use to tie your shoelaces if you pull the loops all the way through. The square knot is also called the reef knot. It's reliable and, if you know how to spill it, easy to untie.
Hitches tie ropes or lines to things like pipes, battens, railings, rings, or pommels.
You spill a square knot, but to untie a bowline you first break it's back.
I like how the words that describe knots also describe the old worlds in which the knots were conceived.
I own a sailboat, and when I am called upon to shorten sail—when the wind pipes up—I loosen one line, the halyard, letting in the top of the sail, then tighten another, the reefing line, gathering the bottom of the sail to make the sail smaller.
The wind is said to pipe up because square rig sailors used to respond to the bosun's pipe, which sent them aloft to shorten sail. I did this once on the Half Moon, a replica of Henry Hudson's ship used to explore New York. It sails today the way it did 400 years ago and I climbed a ladder made of ropes to the main yard, a thin branch shaved down and hoisted by the haul yard, then laid down on it, thirty feet above the deck and forty from the water rushing by beneath it, to reach the end of the sail and tie reef knots in the wet canvas that flogged in an autumn breeze. The man who piped me up was the boatswain—the bosun-- who husbands the ship, married to her and dependent on her to rock him across the water.
In theater we still use bosun's chairs, loft blocks and work on the deck. Well, I work on the deck.
The words, the language of knots creates a line to the past; it evokes an image of how the knots were used, what they were used for, what sort of person used them. The prosaic back splice, which tucks the end of a line back on itself, was, until recently, called the cunt splice.
I tie knots in rope. I tie it in trick line, sash chord, monofilament, wire rope and shoelaces, with webbing and straps, with strops and chains. They are all lines.
The word line comes from linen. A line on a paper, the idea of a line, represents the idea of a string of linen, woven from flax, pulled taut. When you look at a line, a linen string pulled taut, from its end you see a point, a single point. Mathematically, a point is the idea of the single smallest thing there is—not even a thing, but a place—there. Exactly there, unable to be any more left, right, or up or down.
Space bends, light bends and time slows according to increases in gravity. I imagine all the points of my life connected by a line, the various masses that pulled me to wherever it was that I ended up, suddenly seen in the light of that one gravitational field, the one that makes a straight line of everything, revealing the point. Of course, that perspective is only visible at the beginning or the end of life.
You are simultaneously at the beginning and the end of your life at all times, anyway. At the end of what's happened already and the beginning of what's coming. In fact, you occupy that single point between the future and the past.
People talk of the fabric of life, all those life lines woven together to make of it all a grand Life. I think a piece of cloth can be seen as a special form of knot, one that uses several pieces of line. That might make it a bend.
As hard as it is to see the point of life then, seeing the point of all the ends woven together seems especially difficult. Forty-two, the number Douglas Adams came up with before he died, is as good an answer as any, then, I suppose.
Knots can also be classified as useful or decorative. They are sometimes both useful or decorative. They are sometimes both useful and decorative. For the most part, the knots I tie are useful. At least four of them are. The rest are an ornament to my professional capability. There is a line from my boyhood, when I knew nothing practical, to my maturity, now, when the practical things I know seem to be of little importance. All the knots are waypoints in the path of my life. Increasingly, I think the line is the point.