When most people tie knots, it’s for practical reasons. But Adam Master enjoys knot-tying as a social activity, where traditional skills and colourful stories are shared.
Alfred caught up with the Fontmell Magna-based Chairman of the Dorset branch of the International Guild of Knot Tyers.
Adam is proud of his group. When we arrived for our conversation on Park Walk, he seized an opportunity to promote the club by popping up a portable roll-up display banner. His sign rattled through some everyday knot applications. “Gardeners putting up their runner beans, bows on dresses, plaiting your hair, tying your shoelaces…” said Adam.
I glanced down toward Adam’s shoes. I expected to see a fanciful knot. “Not these, no,” Adam laughed. “I can think of many different patterns and different names for lace knots, but it’s just normal ones on my shoes today.”
Knots are obviously useful, but they are not an everyday hobby. I asked Adam whether people have backed away at dinner parties when he explained his passion. “Many times,” he laughed. “Though it’s very rare for someone to go, ‘Okay, that’s it’, and walk off,” he continued. “They usually have a second or third question. It can turn it from a two-minute to a half-hour conversation because you’ve explained more about the subject.”
Adam explained, “There’s the decorative and there’s the practical knots. It’s like painting. You look at someone’s art and the skills they’ve learned. Knots are easier to pick up. I admire people’s paintwork because that’s really special to me. I can spend twenty hours making rope work. Some people might not see the effort you put in, but I can appreciate it.”
Adam discovered knots when he worked on a harbourside. “I saw a co-worker making the lines for boats to moor up with. He did a knot, gave me length of rope said, ‘Practise it’. Next time he gave me a book and some cord. Four months later, I knew more than him. When you go to meetings, you come across people that specialise in one type. They work just on braiding or splicing, when you join two ropes together,” said Adam.
He doesn’t have knotwork displays at home, just a few coasters. He has been in knot tyers’ houses and knots have been everywhere, but he carries knots with him. He pulled out his pen – an ornate knot of red cord was wrapped around the shaft. “It’s a Turk’s Head. I use it to stop my fingers sliding down, like a pen grip,” he explained.
Adam is convinced that knots should take their place on the podium as one of humankind’s greatest creations. “Knots have been invented for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s an argument that they are as important as the discovery of fire. They’re used in almost anything you can think of. In building, its more about cranes now, but knots were first,” Adam said.
We chatted about the organisation whose Dorset branch Adam chairs. “The International Guild of Knot Tyers was set up in 1982. One person thought they had discovered a knot. It was the ‘Hunters Bend’. People said, ‘No, that’s already been named’, and there was a big argument. That’s how the charity started.”
Adam says it’s hard to design a knot hasn’t been made before, but one specialist group attempts to do that. “The Paracord Knot Society use manmade fibres and there are always new ones that seem to be discovered. There are thousands of knots, literally.”
The Guild was formed, in part, to preserve knot-tying skills in the face of new technology and practices. “The invention of things like Velcro limits the use of knots now. The Guild is trying to keep this information alive,” said Adam.
Changing styles and fashion have impacted on knot making, too. “In the 1980s, when the Guild was set up, macramé was big. It’s out of fashion now,” he said.
The Guild is a worldwide organisation. There are ten English groups and Dorset meetings are held in Weymouth. Knot tyers travel long distances. The recent south coast convention attracted people from Canada, Australia and Holland. The Guild publishes a knot magazine. It is one of those more obscure titles that has been featured for its article headlines on TV’s ‘Have I Got News For You’.
“Knotting Matters is quarterly,” said Adam. “It is around forty pages long and A5. It is fantastic because they list all things going on around the world in displays. I have written articles. One was about the Steam Fair in Blandford. I came across a couple of knots and wrote about them and put it in the story.”
Many members of the Guild have maritime links. “Most of the groups are around the coast,” said Adam, adding that many knot stories, names and anecdotes have seafaring links. A knot that looks like a clenched fist was used to weigh down the end of a rope so it could be thrown. This ‘heaving line’ was a sign of good luck to sailors coming into harbour after a voyage.
It’s wrong to think of knots only in nautical terms, though. “Millers had a knot used for tying up sacks of corn to carry up to the top of the mill. There are a few knots just for steeplejacks too, which are now used by climbers.”
Adam says that the Magic Circle’s membership includes expert knot tyers. While some knots take their names from trades or the knot’s application, one is reputedly named after a 19th century sailor who used tying skills to escape a death sentence.
“Matthew Walker was in front of a judge, who knew about knots. The judge said Walker could go free if he could tie a knot that the judge couldn’t undo. Walker went back to his cell, tied a knot and gave it to the judge. The judge couldn’t undo it and he was freed,” said Adam.
A bird watcher is an ornithologist but there is no official name for a knot tyer. “There were a few magazines back in the 1980s that discussed this, but they never come up with a term. It would be nice if there was one.”
Adam is happy to address local clubs and organisation meetings, complete with his smart pop-up banner, to share stories about knots and show some examples. “We go to WI and Scout groups and teach them knots. I love to talk about it,” he said.
Adam is keen to facilitate the formation of a Shaftesbury group, if there’s interest. “Hopefully we could get people on board and teach them a few knots and then they can teach someone else,” said Adam. Or you could simply join the Dorset Guild. “It’s £26 annually. You’re invited to all meetings and there’s the magazine as well. We are on the web at igkt.net and run the Instagram account for Dorset,” Adam said.