Columbian Tom Bryan likes knots, especially the bow tie knot that he started wearing as a young man. “I did it just to be different honestly. This was in the 1960s when nobody 18 years old would wear a bow tie.” He recalls that growing up, he only knew five men in Columbia who wore them. “Now bow ties are the sign of somebody who can still dress respectably but part company from the herd.”
Tom first learned about knots as a Boy Scout. “There is the right knot for the right job. In a campground or on a boat, they can be very instrumental, if not lifesaving. Once you learn the basic knots, you can move from there to specialty knots, and there’s no end to it all,” Tom says.
Knot tying is an ancient craft, predating the ax and the wheel. Some think the first knot happened when a human used a vine to bind a head stone to wood to make a primitive axe. Tom says, “When man learned how to bind and work out cordage, there was a huge advance in civilization. You wouldn’t have the pyramids or the Parthenon without the attendant hoisting and lifting.”
Tom’s knowledge of knots and cordage is diverse and fascinating. He seamlessly moves from discussing a Japanese braiding technique called kumihimo, to thimble knitting machines, port town rope walks, and fly-fishing. “In fishing, there is the right knot for the right line and the right lure. Every fisherman has their favorite knot. Fishing knots are called terminal knots. They’re not meant to be untied. Some knots will bind and make something tighter and some knots will make something looser. It’s very specific.”
Over the years, Tom has collected books on camping knots, fishing knots, and one by Royall Robbins, the 1960s climbing pioneer, but Tom says, “The Ashley book is the end all, be all; if you can’t find it in there, forget it, you don’t need it.”
He is referring to The Ashley Book of Knots. The book, published in 1944, is regarded as the essential tome on knot-tying. It was written by Clifford W. Ashley, a sailor and American painter of maritime scenes. Within the 600 pages are eccentric drawings, poetic chapter headings such as “Odd Splices” and “Tricks and Puzzles,” as well as 3,854 knot entries. Ashley writes that tying a knot “is an adventure in unlimited space … an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the ropemaker’s coil.”
The Ashley Book of Knots set another Columbian on her path to making jewelry. Mary Kent Hearon received the book from a friend in Charleston, and while perusing the pages, she saw a knot that looked similar to a heart. She began experimenting with rope and eventually created her signature jewelry piece, The Heart Knot, also the name of her business.
“The Heart Knot is actually a Celtic knot,” Mary Kent says. Celtic knots are interwoven patterns made up of one continuous line with no beginning or end. They can be found in Ireland decorating church monuments, crosses, and the medieval manuscript, Book of Kells.
To make her jewelry, Mary Kent takes around 3 feet of rope — for example, a three-ply metallic twist rope with a shimmer of gold — and she loops it around, pulls it, and ties it. “You can tie a Heart Knot without sewing it. But I hand sew mine.”
After perfecting her first piece of jewelry, Mary Kent researched other knots on the internet. “I picked the ones that spoke to me and the ones I could envision making into a necklace or earrings.”
She sources her rope from different places in the world. “I’m constantly looking for ropes. My bestseller comes from Germany.” She recently imported rope from Japan for her newest piece, the Pawleys Knot, a looped necklace made in collaboration with Guilds Peace, the owner of the Mimi Seabrook women’s clothing boutique at Pawleys Island.
A knotted bracelet named the Pipa Knot also conjures up the South Carolina coastline. “It looks like a fishtail, but it also looks like an oyster, and I thought that was just perfect for the Lowcountry.”
She also uses a square knot, famous in sailing, that she calls the Love Knot, but, she adds with a laugh, that she wouldn’t recommend her decorative Love Knot for actual sailing. These particular bracelets are crafted with gold and silver rope.
Mary Kent says that people give her jewelry to friends who have lost someone and friends who are sick and even to friends healing from broken hearts. She is so pleased when people tell her that her jewelry brings joy. “And honestly, that’s what it did for me. It made me so happy.”
While Mary Kent’s knots are purely decorative, Johnny Beach, a Columbia lawyer, knows tying a proper knot is critical for his recently rediscovered love of sailing. In his 20s and 30s, he began entering sailing races as part of a crew, racing Y-Flyers and Hobie Cats. After a long break, Johnny is back racing Sunfish at Lake Murray, but this time as the person holding the tiller. “The thing that I’m having to learn from scratch with the Sunfish is the skippering part,” he says. “It’s been a real challenge. I’ve really enjoyed it, but I’ve got a long way to go. The great thing about sailing is that you can keep learning forever.”
Johnny sails at the Columbia Sailing Club. Founded in 1957, the organization offers lessons for children and adults and hosts sailing events throughout the year. “At Lake Murray, we have some amazing world class racing sailors. You get some really good quality competition, and everyone there is very willing to help you get better,” he says.
Johnny explains that ropes are called lines in sailing. “A good knot stays tied as long as it needs to stay tied and then can be untied fairly easily,” Johnny says. He uses around five basic knots while sailing. “The sheet bend is a perfect knot to tie two lines together, and the bowline knot is a go-to knot because you’ve got a loop that will stay an exact size under pressure and tension.” Sailors have used the bowline for 500 years. It can be tied around a post or used to fasten the halyard to the sail.
Johnny points out that two half hitches work well for tying a line to something like a boom or a wooden piling. “It creates a loop at the end of the line, but unlike the bowline, the loop gets smaller as you put tension on it.”
Local lawyer Jan Strifling uses hitches too — mostly in situations in which his life depends on them. Jan started rock climbing after his son Jack picked it up at summer camp. He and Jack climbed together, and when Jack went off to college, he left his climbing gear at home with Jan. “I had to decide whether I really liked it, which I did,” Jan says. “I haven’t picked up a tennis racket in 35 years because of it. I’ve just been climbing all this time.” He has climbed in the Southeast at Looking Glass at Pisgah Forest and Linville Gorge as well as in the western part of the United States and in Italy, Scotland, England, and France.
Jan has also taught rock climbing in the physical education department at the University of South Carolina. “We taught traditional climbing,” Jan says. In traditional climbing, also called trad climbing, a leader ascends a section of rock placing their own protective gear in the cracks in the mountain.
“Climbing is inherently dangerous, including the tying of knots,” Jan says, emphasizing this is not instructional. “What you’re trying to do with these various knots is to avoid the rope breaking, untying the rope, or stopping as much shock load as possible.” Shock load means the sudden force exerted when an object accelerates — i.e., a person falling. Jan says, “When someone falls, the rope acts like a shock absorber because it’s dynamic, like a bungee cord.”
He explains that climbers commonly use about eight knots. “You’ve got two kinds of knots — trace knots and hitch knots. The danger of trace knots is that they can come loose easily.”
In climbing, a hitch connects a rope to another object like a carabiner. Jan says, “The clove hitch and Munter hitch are very simple to do right and very simple to do wrong. The clove hitch will hold and grab, but you can easily undo it without getting out of an anchor.” The Munter hitch, named after famed Swiss climber Werner Munter, is a way of wrapping rope around an object.
The figure-eight knot is a common knot used by climbers because it is secure and easy to visually inspect. “If you fall on it, it just tightens down on itself,” Jan says. The double fisherman’s knot also comes in handy. This knot is called a bend, meaning a knot that ties two ropes together.
Every day, knots are being improved. For instance, scientists recently used special fibers that change color when they are under strain as a way to identify strong and weak knots. Mathematics even has something called knot theory. But most people seem content with using the simple bow knot for tying shoelaces, knots for securing turkey legs, and knots to make those classic summer camp box braid lanyards and macramé wall hangings.