Knotting certainly came about in conjunction with other fiber techniques like weaving (27,000 BC or earlier) and sewing (approximately (25,000 BC or earlier), but what was early knotting for and where/why was it used?
Knots were used for magic around the world to facilitate life transitions such as marriage, birth, death, and to energetically shift or will outcomes. Some knots were created to represent figurative designs like animals or flowers -- to bring symbolic power and remind the viewer of a message conveyed in the knot symbol. Other knots were a spell in motion, meant to be ceremonially untied to free someone of a difficulty or allow a transition, such as in the case of child birth.
Above images from The Thread Spirit by Mark Siegeltuch
To demonstrate the far-reaching magic and spell work knots--
and all so the diversity of interpretations they hold-- Here is a list of knot spells & rituals:
Knotting Nuptial Clothes -India
A bride & groom's garments are knotted together as they rotate around a fire
to cement the eternal union.
Transferring Illness away from the body - Germany
Pain was often interpreted as a bind that needed to be loosened. Strings
were knotted around trees to transfer the bond away from the body.
Amulets - Egypt
Over thirty hieroglyphics were said to represent string and the ankh, in fact, is
a tie that represents life.
Love Knot - Sweden
Swedish sailors sent unfinished Love Knots to a sweetheart, in the tradition of
passing love notes, if the knot was returned finished, love was requited.
Tying & Untying relationships - Scotland
In one story from the 1800s a girl tied knots in the whip of the man she was
infatuated with, only to have her rival untie them all and keep him from falling
under spell. Superstitious tying/untying knots was thought to cause gain or
loss of love.
Birth Knots - Greece/Rome
Greeks & Romans believed the untying of knots during childbirth would
facilitate an easier delivery as the tension is released from the knots.
In pre-literacy cultures knots were an important link to memory. Ever seen the classic old image of the string tied around the finger with the words "don't forget"? When writing tools were readily available and further back when reading/writing wasn't widely practiced, knots were placed strategically or created in figurative forms to convey messages.
One example is the Quipu (also known as 'talking knots'), an amazing piece of Incan fiber work where knots were tied to record information on their empire which extended more than 3,000 miles. Quipu's were used to record bookkeeping numbers, the census, tax records, royal genealogy, and star maps. Similarly mnemonic knot devices were utilized by ancient Hawaiian and Chinese cultures. They were mainly made of spun colored coded wax thread and a few exist today stored in mausoleums and displayed in museums.
PROBLEM SOLVING TECHNOLOGY
Sailing, shipping, construction, climbing are among the many fields that rely on knotting techniques, but on a smaller scale, knots have been used throughout time and around the world to construct bedding (ie, hammocks), add features around the home (ie handles to drawers and cabinets), and secure clothing in a decorative way (ie, tying shoe laces).
From the Cat's Cradle, to the Labyrinth, to the spider web, the Sutratman, a Sanskrit word for thread-spirit is the common thread in these woven knot-based designs. The Thread-Spirit, explained by Mark Siegeltuch in his book by the same name, is defined as the hidden principle of the universe, that all seemingly disparate parts are connected by one common thread. When you sew or knit or crochet or knot, you are often working with just one single string/yarn/thread that dips and crosses itself and reaches in such a way that it is spatially fast and visually creates a number of shapes, belying the fact that it is only a single thread. This is also the magic of our physical world: Somehow you and I and the stars lightyears away are all made of the same stuff. While each different element in a fiber piece holds a certain amount of tension and seems to oppose the other (for example when yarn links itself creating a knit or purl), each element is at the same time unified as all part of the same fiber, it will in fact all fall apart if you cut a single element out.
THE SYNCHRONICITY OF KNOTTING
Is it strange that different cultures around the world could have created the same knot but maybe attached very different names and meanings? One such example is the Double Coin Knot / Josephine Knot. In China, the knot is called the double as it appears almost like two overlapping coins. In Chinese knotting lore, it was expected to bring the luck of prosperity into your life if you had it in your space or wore it on your body. How then does this same knot exist in European culture as the Josephine Knot, named during the time of Napoleon and said to represent longing for a lover.
In China, knots were very intentional and designed to manifest symbolism. Knots were often used to decorate temples and tie around monk's robes, and you will certainly see knots during Chinese New Year in red satin rattail cord to represent luck (ie, the 4-Leave Clover Knot). So it makes sense that the Double Coin knot, resembling coins, was popularized to call upon prosperity.
By contrast, in European culture, knots were often served folkloric story-telling, nostalgia, and romance. The same knot conceptualized under the Josephine & Napoleon love story, then appears like a hug, an embrace of two entities colliding into one.
Did this cross-cultural similarity happen when the cultures cross paths and one copied what they saw from the other? Did someone from one culture teach it to someone from another to spread and popularize like an old fashioned meme? Or did both cultures create the design separately due to its simplicity as a natural out-growth of playing with string? Any of the above could be true, but part of the magic is that we will never have that answer. Knotting is so fundamental to the evolution of human culture as an technology and creative medium and so ethereal that evidence of natural fiber experiments aren't likely to stand the test of time.
There are so many
forms & traditions
Mat Knots/ Woven knots
Japanese, & Korean Knotting
Braids & Plaits