The Chinese have been knotting cord for several thousand years. Originally the act of knotting was developed probably to simply close or fasten something, but it didn’t stop there. Using cord made from cotton, or even silk, the Chinese elevated the simple act of knotting to an art. They produced knots that were not only useful, but also complex, elegant, and sophisticated.
Knotting was done with cord made of cotton or silk, both of which disintegrate easily when not cared for, so there are not many examples more than 3,000 years old. But there are images of knots on items much older. Knots were used on clothing, of course, but they were also seen on home furnishings, decorative objects, and anything that needed to be pulled, and they were even hung simply by themselves. Some clothing had knots that were so complicated that the wearers had to carry special tools with them to untie the knots!
Knots were not simply rounded, either. They could be shaped like small weavings (in a simple over-and-under pattern), clovers, dragonflies, dragons, butterflies, coins, cranes, and the phoenix. Many of these patterns can still be tied today.
Obviously the Chinese used knots for their decorative effect. But they had a more important function, too – that of communication. Knots could be used to convey messages of love or wishes for prosperity, long life, peace, harmony, fertility, justice, or luck. And they could be combined for multiple messages – for example, longevity and wealth. There was even a knot used by unmarried women to help them choose a husband. Like today’s bridal bouquet, it was thrown by a woman, but in this case the woman was single, and she threw it to a group of prospective suitors; whoever caught it was the lucky (we hope) winner of the maiden’s hand.
There is not much written down from the earliest periods of Chinese knotting; it was more of an oral tradition. As the world became more industrialized at the beginning of the twentieth century, the tradition and craft of Chinese knotting began to die out. Then in the 1970s the growing popularity of macrame brought about a resurgence of interest in other forms of knotting. People sought out the elderly women who had originally been known to do Chinese knotting and asked them to pass along their skills. In this way much of the knowledge of Chinese knotting was preserved.
Today Chinese knotting can still be used for its symbolism, but its decorative effect seems to be more popular. It can be used for jewelry, belts, ties, purse handles, ornaments, and decorative trim. Cotton or silk cord is still popular, but the choices for cord have expanded to include hemp, leather, and rattail – actually, anything that is neither too stiff nor too flimsy. Some types of cord need to have their ends sealed to prevent fraying, and some knots need to be lightly stitched to keep them from coming apart.
Chinese knots range from the simple to the very complex. There are books and websites that teach how to tie the knots. It may help to pin the cord to a porous surface, like a cardboard box, to keep it in place until you are comfortable with handling the cord on its own. This can keep the knot from turning into a useless tangle.
Chinese knotting used to be a part of everyday life. While that probably isn’t true anymore, it can still turn an ordinary object into something special.