When Philippe Petit stepped out on a high-wire illegally strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 and performed his act, his exploit became folkloric. But what the awestruck crowd couldn’t see was Petit’s beautifully designed rigging. Throughout Petit’s career, knots have been indispensable: “They are guardian angels protecting my life in the sky.”
After years of hands-on research, Petit recently authored Why Knot? How to Tie More Than Sixty Ingenious, Useful, Beautiful, Lifesaving and Secure Knots. Petit’s practical sketches and artful drawings illustrate original methods and provide clear, clever tying instructions. On the cover is a meter of red cord, so the reader can “jump right in” and start tying.
“Knots are pure design in three dimensions,” Petit explains. “There is nothing decorative. All elements serve their purpose.” Each example demonstrates how form follows function. His Gang of Five introduces five champion knots—as important as the five digits of your hand. He can tie them all in 11 seconds flat.
The Triple Grapevine Knot, my personal favorite, gathers two Figure of Eights. It appears complex at first but offers a graceful finale as it slides into a symmetrical shape upon completion. Fishers, campers, and climbers who need to connect two lines of the same diameter commonly use this beautiful and practical knot.
A really beautiful knot is the Monkey’s Fist. “It’s a formidable challenge but I love its spherical shape," Petit says. “It is perfection.” The knot’s often used as a weight when heaving a line between a boat and the dock. But you must learn through diagrams alone. These instructions, he says, “Can be read in any of the world’s 6,900 languages.”
Petit is inspired by the True Lover’s elegant design. (“I like the best—in barn-building joints, in haikus, in pickpocket moves, in single-malt whiskies, in knot tying.”) In conversation, he sees knots as moving parallel to civilization’s progress. “Knots are born out of specific human needs and those needs are forever changing.” Advances in knot design now follow maritime demands and our fascination with rock climbing, he says.
Every design discipline has its own “jargon” and the same is true for knot design. Colorful illustrations in the book depict knots with Petit’s own terminology usurped from decades of study and of course, knot tying. The “throat of and eye,” “Flemishing a line,” “the whipping,” and “the bight” are all part of a new language learned when mastering knots.
Buy the book for about $15 here.