How to Be a Knot Geek

Learn to tie knots with an app

daisy chain, electrician's knot, electrical cord, power tool
An electrician’s knot keeps cable tidy and untangled.By the author

When pressed by responsibilities that absolutely cannot be put off—meeting a deadline, scheduling an appointment to get a crown for the tooth I cracked eating Harris Teeter vegetable chips last week, or getting my car inspected and titled in Maryland so that I stop receiving $50 tickets that include threats like "Next time your vehicle will be towed, compacted, and sold as scrap metal in Guatemala"—I man up and do the sensible thing. I sit down on the sofa with a piece of string and start practicing knots. I don't know exactly when I turned into a knot geek (ed. note: It's been a while). I do know that the affliction is easy to get and impossible to cure. My preferred knot app, which is also my favorite app on my phone, is Animated Knots by Grog, $4.99 on iTunes.

The app lists hundreds of knots, from the Albright knot to the Zeppelin bend, along with easily followed animations. These can be stopped and started at any point so you can examine them. If you see a knot that is the reverse image of how you tie it, tap the little icon at lower left and it flips the knot. There’s an Info tab for each knot that explains its uses, origin (if known), variations, similar alternatives, and whether, when, or why the alternatives should be used. I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing with this app the way others play Candy Crush or whatever’s most popular this week. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on it, often creeping out whoever’s next to me on the airplane.

There is a beguiling purity to knots, something constant and unchanging. Mathematically speaking, a knot is just the embedding of a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidian space. (That’s from Wikipedia and no, I have no idea what it means.)

One of my favorites is the electrician’s coil, which I just today wrote Grog about, asking why it’s not included in the app. Satisfying to tie and simple—as any knot is once you know it—but also easy to learn. And supremely useful. It coils 100 feet of doubled electrical cord into a series of non-tangle loops that can be hung from a hook or nail. These days, I mow my lawn with an electrical mower lent to me by my landlord. This gave me legitimate reason to tie the electrician’s coil last Sunday.

The Boy Scouts, incidentally, say there are either six or 10 knots that "every scout should know" (depending on where you look). Unfortunately, I've found a source where a couple are either misnamed or flat-out wrong. One is the description of the square knot, which is satisfyingly symmetrical but never to be used in critical applications. As Clifford Ashley (the father of modern knot study) warns—and whom the Grog app quotes—"There have probably been more lives lost as a result of using a square knot as a bend (to tie two ropes together) than from the failure of any other half dozen knots combined." And yet, the source opines, "The books say not to use the square knot to tie two ropes together because it can untie itself under the right conditions, but I have used a single slipped square knot to tie two ropes together for years without a problem yet." That's nuts. You might as well claim that your cousin is a firearms expert because he has yet to accidentally shot himself or anyone else yet. Getting way with the same stupid thing doesn't mean it's right. It just means you've been lucky. So far.

Such are the exasperations of the knot geek. As with any expertise, it giveth but also taketh away.

If you learn nothing more than the bowline and the constrictor knot, you’ll be 90 percent ahead of most folks.