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Talking With the President of the International Guild of Knot Tyers

Noah Davis spoke to Colin Byfleet about knots and tying up Harry Houdini.
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In addition to having an incredible name, Colin Byfleet boasts an impressive title: President of the International Guide of Knot Tyers. He oversees an organization that boasts roughly 1,300 members worldwide, its members tying Flemish Bends in France, Ground-line Hitches in Germany, and Spanish bowlines in Sweden. There are also regular meet-ups in the United States and the United Kingdom. I emailed with Byfleet to ask about guilds, knot guides, and how one might tie up Houdini.

How did you get into knot tying?
Initially as a Boy Scout (our Troop had a copy of The Ashley Book of Knots in the 1950s) and then as a small-boat sailor. After a longish lapse, my wife and I met with members of a U.K. branch of the Guild demonstrating knotting at the quadrennial boat festival in Brest, France, in 2004. We joined the Guild later that year and attended our first AGM (Annual General Meeting) in 2005 in the U.K and were made extremely welcome. Then, we moved to work at Florida State University in Tallahassee in Aug 2005. Traveling between the U.S. and U.K. made us miss most meetings for a while except for one in Charleston, South Carolina. On return to U.K. in 2009, I volunteered to help with the sales of Guild books and other merchandise.

How does one become the president?
By election at the AGM. I was there and didn't duck fast enough in 2011.

"If you want him to die, tie his arms to his ankles behind his back, making sure the secure knots are out of reach of his fingers and toes."

How many active members do you have?
About 1,300 in over 30 countries. About 400 each in the U.K. and U.S., significant numbers in France, Germany, and Sweden, who have their own branches. There are three branches in the U.S.

What's a meet-up like?
Very sociable with business kept to a minimum! Last AGM was in the U.S. (on the Queen Mary at Long Beach, California) and in the U.K. (at Henley-on-Thames near London) simultaneously. The next get-together is in Flensburg, Germany, in October.

Is there any entry requirement to the IGKT in terms of skill or talent?
None whatsoever. Just an interest in making things or tying knots in twine, cord, or rope.

How would you suggest a beginning knot tyer learn? What are some simple-to-learn, fun, beginner knots?
There are many good, simple books available and also much information online. Suggest a few useful knots to start—Bowline, Constrictor, Round Turn and Two Half Hitches, Sheet Bend. Maybe some simple Plaits (also called Sennits) and Turks Heads. Our IGKT logo is a 3Lx4B flattened Turks Head, as is the Scouts' Woggle. They are circular knots with a three-fold plait (three leads) interwoven to give four loops on each edge (four bights).

What are some important traits to being a good knot tyer? Nimble fingers? Patience?
Patience certainly and a willingness to practice and inquisitiveness. Many very large people do the most delicate of work.

Are new knots being invented? If so, what are some recent discoveries/creations?
The simple answer is yes, but it is not easy to be precise—there's always a lot of discussion about this. For example. see the Wikipedia articles on Hunter's Bend or the Simple Simon Under Bend. Dr. Harry Asher, the inventor of this latter knot (in the mid 1990s), was one of the most original knot designers.

With regard to more complex knots, there is an infinite number of Turks Heads other three-dimensional arrangements (e.g. Globe Knots). Many new recipes for these have been published by Don Burrhus, an IGKT member in Florida. Macrame, lace, and knitting are also complex knots with infinite variety.

What's your favorite knot? Why?
Probably the Turks Head because it comes in an infinite set of shapes and always looks good.

There seem to be a lot of chapters in England. Why? Does the country have a great knot-tying tradition?
Many knot tyers have become interested in knots from a sailing background. Britain is surrounded by water! The Guild started in 1982 because some people in the U.K. were very concerned about what seemed then to be a dying art. Since then a whole raft of books have been published by many Guild members, perhaps the most prominent in the U.K. being Geoffrey Budworth and Des Pawson, two current and founding members. They were very concerned from the start that interest should be international and we try to keep that at the forefront of what we do.

You mentioned knot tying was seen as a dying art. Is it experiencing something of a renaissance? There is, generally, a fascination with the past, I think.
It is a dying art as far as its major historical use in shipping/carting/etc. It is a lively field for knots needing to be tied in slippery modern ropes, especially amongst climbers and cavers. The IGKT's formation has catalyzed the production of many good books on knots in the last three decades.

You're trying to tie up Harry Houdini. What's the strategy?
If you want him to live, make sure he tenses his muscles to leave some slack when he relaxes. Don't use knots that jam.

If you want him to die, tie his arms to his ankles behind his back, making sure the secure knots are out of reach of his fingers and toes.

Who's the best knot tyer?
Not a relevant question. How do you compare chalk with cheese? Most people are very good at some aspect of knotting, but we're cooperative and not competitive.