The Knot Garden

Anni Albers, Knot 2, 1947, “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957” at ICA Boston

Wyth Flora paynted and wrought curyously,
In divers knottes of marvaylous gretenes;
Rampande lyons stode up wondersly,
Made all of herbes with dulcet swetenes,
Wyth many dragons of marvaylos likenes,
Of dyvers floures made ful craftely,
By Flora couloured wyth colours sundry.

Stephen Hawes, The Pastime of Pleasure, or The History of Graund Amoure and La Bel Pucell (London, 1509).

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Knots are fastened loops of string, rope, or thread. Within craft, knotting is used to structure fabrics by looping, weaving, and intertwining multiple threads, forming an open fabric. Anthropologist Tim Ingold describes in poetic form how knots are the memoried elements of fabrics, of fibres “bound in sympathy”—meaning that they work together to create a “mesh of lines”. Following this, we can think of fabrics (and other knotted things) as archives that contain traces of their makers, their constitutive fibres, their shaping, and their particularity. A knot is a repository of making. And yet it can be undone, unmade. The knot might be lost, yet the memory of their making is retained. (Just think of the knots in Ariadne’s thread.) Textile designer and weaver Anni Albers understood this all too clearly. Her gouache drawings of knots show their ends to be “on the loose,” seeking out new forms, new relationships, all the while retaining their kinks and bends.

And it is this restlessness, this agitation of knots that earns their place “among the most ancient of human arts”. When seeking out the rationale for contemporary architecture, architectural theorist Gottfried Semper traced their movement from nets to woven textile hangings, and from there to enclosed spaces. The knot created surfaces, but also spaces. It slips and translates across materials, practices, and times.

And so to medieval English knot gardens with their criss-cross patterning of plants, as if formed by continuous threads. Rosemary, lavender, bee-flowers, hyssop, sage, thyme, cowslips, peony, daisies, pinks, southernwood, and Sweet Williams – planted out in a succession of continuous and interrupted lines to forming an embroidery-like pattern through a kind of illusion. George Cavendish described a spectacular garden at Hampton Court with “knotts so enknotted, it cannot be express”, untethered and over-run, a paradise of green and gold foliage.

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Knots are distractions, entanglements, muddled encounters. They are “always in the midst of things, while their ends are on the loose, rooting for other lines to tangle with.” Knots can help us think about the proximity and potential togetherness of divergent ideas, thoughts, or practices – remarkable in their complexity.

Short bibliography

Anni Albers, On Weaving (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1965).

Alicia Amherst, A History of Gardening in England (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1895).

David Jacques, “The Compartiment System in Tudor England,” Garden History, Vol. 27, No. 1, Tudor Gardens (Summer, 1999), pp.32–53.

Tim Ingold, “Transformations of the Line: Traces, Threads and Surfaces,” Textile: Cloth and Culture, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2010, pp.10–35.

Tim Ingold, The Life of Lines (Oxon: Taylor & Francis, 2015).

Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, trans. by Harry Francis Mallgrave and Michael Robinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

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Kimberley Chandler is a writer, researcher, editor, and designer with a PhD in Design and Architecture from the University of Brighton, UK.

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