A good knot on a bad rope is no better than a bad knot.

ALVIN SMITH (1798–1823)


Reef, Granny, Thief and Grief

The Reef Knot (strictly a bend, as it’s used to connect two ropes) is traditionally used to ‘reef’ a sail (i.e. to reduce its size so as to make a vessel more manageable in a high wind). It’s a very old knot and well-known to laymen, but isn’t highly regarded in the knotting fraternity as it’s prone to slipping, particularly if the ropes are different thicknesses. The mnemonic is ‘right over left, then left over right, makes a knot both tidy and tight.'
The Granny Knot is regarded by sailors as a land-lubber’s or woman’s knot. It slips when heavily loaded, but can also jam and is more difficult than the reef knot to untie. It’s what you get when you repeat the first stage of a reef knot twice: right over left, then right over left again.
The Thief Knot comes apart if the lines (the load-bearing ropes) are pulled. The name is supposed to have originated because it was used by sailors to tie up their belongings, as a way of catching out thieving ship-mates. Because it’s so insecure, it was believed that any other sailor who was rifling through your belongings would automatically use a more seamanlike knot when re-tying the bag, and so give away that it had been tampered with.
The Grief Knot is an amalgam of a Granny and a Thief. It can be used as a magician’s trick knot: it jams when pulled in one direction, and falls apart when pulled in the other. It’s possible to lock and unlock it by twisting the working ends, but the knot is too unreliable to be used for any serious purpose.


Philosophy unties the knots in our thinking that we have, in a senseless way, put there.

When is a Knot Not a Knot?

Technically speaking, there are three types of fastenings for rope:
1) Bends, these join two ropes together.
2) Hitches which attach a rope to something, like a post or rail.
3) Knots - anything else i.e. usually something tied on a single line.
In practice, the word ‘knot’ gets applied to all three indiscriminately but the precise meanings are important to climbers and sailors. Specialist knots include:
The Highwayman’s Hitch: A simple knot for securing something to a ring or pole so you can release it cleanly. One end holds the horse securely, whilst a yank on the other end releases the knot.
The Euro Death Knot: This is used for joining two ropes. Because it is a very old and simple knot, and often used for hay bales, American climbers gave it the disparaging name, often referring to it as ‘EDK’ for short. It actually isn’t particularly unsafe if you leave long ends.
The Snuggle Hitch: A knot which is easy to tie and untie, and a rare example of a knot where we know precisely who invented it: Owen K. Nuttall of the International Guild of Knot Tyers first documented it in the Guild's Knotting Matters magazine issue of January, 1987.
A Hangman’s Knot: This is also known as the Jack Ketch Knot (named after Charles II’s famously sadistic executioner). It is a slip knot traditionally made with 13 coils. Each coil adds friction, which makes it harder to pull open or closed. In executions this meant the knot was secure enough to break the person’s neck rather than strangle them.


To ‘enodate’ is to unknot or remove difficulties.

Inclusion Body Disease causes pythons to tie themselves in knots and stare vacantly into space.

Old Knots

A reef knot in Texas’s Pecos Rio museum is one of the earliest surviving knots – it is about 10,000 years old. As well as using these knots for building shelters and hunting equipment, they were also used to record numbers and the passage of time.

The Incas had a system called quipu, a series of coloured, knotted strings. The type of knot indicated a number, and the knot’s placement signified units of 1, 10, 100, or more. The coloured string represented what it was (e.g. gold or corn) they were trying to count. There’s some evidence that every village had its own quipu code - a sequence of three digits. This may have been the world’s first attempt at postcodes.
The knotter’s bible is The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley which contains 3,800 knots, each with an official ABOK number. New knots are approved by the International Guild of Knot Tyers, which publishes a quarterly magazine, Knotting Matters.


When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.

Something ‘enodous’ is free of knots.

The Incas used intricate knotted bits of string to write down their numbers.