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How An Apple Alum Found Her True Calling–In Knots

“I felt strongly compelled to explore my own creativity,” says Windy Chien.

As Windy Chien puts it, she’s now living her third life. In her first, she owned and operated San Francisco’s Aquarius Records. Then she made her way to Apple, where she served as a producer at iTunes and helped it evolve into the multimedia store it is today.

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Today, she ties knots. Lots of knots. Chien is now an artist who is focusing, for the first time in her career, on creating her own work. Her obsession with knots began when she took a refresher course in macrame, a skill she’d first learned from her mother back in the 1970s.

[Photo: Vero Kherian/courtesy Windy Chien]
“I started out making macrame wall hangings and plant hangers like every other beginner, but soon found myself constrained by the limited number of knots most macrame artists use,” says Chien. “Macrame knots are but a tiny subset of the numbers of known and documented knots.” Indeed, there are more than 4,000 knots currently known and documented to the world. “I had a lightbulb moment,” she continues. “I realized that if I wanted my work to be as expressive as possible, I need to learn all the knots. The same as a painter who needs all her colors.”

Heaving Line Knot [Photo: courtesy Windy Chien]
In 2016, Chien tied a knot a day on her Instagram, the results of which became a sculpture unto themselves. The sheer variety is enchanting. They range from beautifully braided, to ornately Celtic, to stoically nautical. And when presented side by side, they create a timeline representing thousands of years of ingenuity, spanning cultures worldwide. Even if you don’t know their history and function, each was clearly crafted with incredible intent. Chien sells her work as hanging textile art, jewelry, and also lighting–her Helix Lights are wrapped in complex knotting and sell for $400.

“For any given situation, there is one knot that is right where all the others are wrong,” says Chien. “It gives me great pleasure to know which one that is. It’s not about memorizing how to make all the knots–it’s about understanding how knots work.” (Recently, she was even able to repair part of her own car’s interior with the right knot.)

Heaving Line Knot [Photo: courtesy Windy Chien]
Of course, over a year of tying new knots, Chien developed a few favorites, and she recounts their virtues like a historian. “I love one particular variety of Heaving Line knot. Heaving Line knots were invented in ye olden days by sailors who needed to get a quantity of rope from ship to shore. You can’t throw loose rope, so they would tie a very dense, heavy knot in one end of line and throw it like a football,” says Chien. “The knot is gorgeous and has a life to it that I like to play with. I’ve experimented with making it large and elongating it. I call it the Dune Creature because it reminds me of the sandworm from Dune.”

Button Knot [Photo: courtesy Windy Chien]
“My other favorite type of knot is Button Knot,” she continues. “Button Knots are just that, originally used as buttons on say, Chinese pajamas. The rope enters and exits the knot in the same spot, leaving the knot protruding like a flower on a stem. They’re magical, and their variety is endless.”

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Chinese Button Knot [Photo: courtesy Windy Chien]
No doubt, Chien could never have imagined knots becoming such an obsession in her own life, even a decade ago. In many ways, these ancient, analog works couldn’t feel further away from iTunes. But to Chien, the shift from curator to creator was a natural one, considering her longstanding interest in the arts.

“Working with all the brilliant people at Apple was a life highlight, but I realized that curating and supporting other peoples work, which is what I did at both Apple and the record store, was no longer enough,” says Chien. “I felt strongly compelled to explore my own creativity. So here I am now, making art for a living and happier than ever.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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