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My favourite waste of time: Knot tying


It is a relatively normal post-retirement trajectory, I am told. For the first few weeks you get around to all those jobs you have been putting off and rapidly remember why you have spent so much of your life putting them off.

Having mown the lawn to within a centimetre of its verdant life and repeatedly checked the website of your former employer to see whether it has ground to a moribund halt without you, you skirt dangerously close to filling your days with re-runs of Top Gear or Inspector Morse, until someone takes you to one side and offers you some helpful advice: “what you need is a nice little hobby”.

Hobbies in retirement?

Within a few months of retirement I had been given such advice by an endless stream of good-intentioned companions. I therefore embarked on a voyage of discovery – my own personal odyssey – to identify that nice little hobby that would bring satisfaction, fascination and engagement to a life that had said goodbye to the meaning of work.

Using the wondrous and near-inexhaustible resources available on the internet, I dipped my toe into the exotic pool of meaningless hobbies and other trivial ways of passing the time in retirement.

And for no particular reason, I started with knot tying.

Knot tying

I remember a song on the Billy Cotton Band Show on the radio about the pleasure of untying knots in a piece of string. And there is a pleasure in it – the pleasure of unravelling. When it’s raining outside and there is nothing decent on the telly, give me a pint of half-decent beer and a good knotted piece of string and I’m a happy man.

Give me a pint of half-decent beer and a good knotted piece of string and I’m a happy man

I am loath to suggest that knots are in any way trivial. If you have nothing better to do with your life, you can try this little experiment - count how many times a day you either tie or untie a knot. In my case it came to a somewhat disappointing ‘three’ and two of those were my shoelaces – and before you ask I pulled my shoes off without untying them.

I am tempted to suggest that people fall into one of two personality types which can easily be identified, based only on whether they would prefer to tie knots or untie them: we are all ravellers or unravellers, constructors or deconstructors.

But when it comes to social organisation, the ravellers win every time. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the twisted world of the knot enthusiast.

The world of the ‘knot-head’

Enter the world of the ‘knot-head’- a term adopted by many American knot-tying enthusiasts – and you are entering the world of the clove hitch, the sheepshank, the Turks Head, Monkeyfist and Jug Sling.

Get a group of knot-heads together in the same room – which the various branches of the International Guild of Knot Tyers does with astonishing regularity – and the passage of time is lost as loops of twine bind the participants together in happy fellowship.

There is, of course, also a vibrant on-line community, with over 1,000 members of the Yahoo knot-tyers discussion group. Recent topics have included the search for a formula for estimating cordage length (SL = (3.14 *(D+3*d)*L)/(d*S) was suggested by one correspondent) and which knotting book one would best like to be stranded on a desert island with.

Can knots help us understand the fabric of life on earth?

While slip-on shoes and clip-on ties might be downgrading the importance of knots in our lives, scientists are increasingly focusing on the role of knots in furthering our understanding of the universe.

Mathematicians have devoted a good deal of time to what is known as ‘knot theory’ – studying “structures which embed a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidean space” – while physicists are interested in knots because the some theories of matter postulate that everything is made up of tightly coiled (and maybe knotted) loops of space-time.

Even biologists are interested in knots, because of the way the long, string-like molecules of DNA coil themselves up tightly to fit inside the cell.

Slowly coming undone

But although the world of the raveller is well catered for in traditional, on-line and increasingly, scientific literature, we unravellers are an endangered, unsupported and unloved species. While our friends are out attending knot-tyers supper parties we sit alone with our knotted string and our desire to open that which has been locked.

Like Alexander the Great we take the sword of reason to the Gordian knot of modern living. And we do it in splendid isolation.

Are you a knot-tyer? Do you ravel or unravel? Have you got any interesting or unusual hobbies you’d like to share with us? We’d love to hear from you so please leave your comments below.

This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.

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