If mankind’s first imaginative task was to begin naming the world that God created, next may have been a search for alternatives to the animal skins that the Lord gave to cover their nakedness. Archaeological discovery of scraps of textiles are often hailed as evidence of true (and early) human culture—first steps in our attempts to bring order to the chaotic natural world by forms of handwork that focus on the felicities of rhythm and regularity like spinning, weaving, and knitting. Indeed, it is still easiest to see the beauty of creative work that conforms to familiar patterns and is obviously useful. On the other hand, there is something unruly and more mysterious about things we describe as “tangled” and especially, “knotty,” on account of our feelings about the objects and the relationships they describe. In common parlance, knots are problems, not elegant solutions.
Yet this is not always the case, for the way strands (whether of wool, cotton, silk, or even cellular proteins) fold and turn back onto themselves is also the source of both efficiency and unexpected strength—and sometimes a particular beauty. Celtic knot-work is an example of the latter, where the turnings and convolutions invite us to investigate and follow each strand more carefully, and order and symmetry signal a “problem” that contains its own resolution. But the traditional art of tatting builds more literally upon the tangle, crafting lace from layers of hand-tied knots. The image above is a detail of work tatted by Colorado artist Julie Sprinkle, showing a section of knotted loops approximately one inch wide. There is regularity here, too, in the form of twists and turns and doubling-backs created by repeated movements of hand, shuttle and thread. But the regularity is not strictly linear (or at least not grid-like), for the structure of tatted work depends on cycles more than rows, and larger patterns and beauty emerge when the tiny individual knots are lost to the eye.
Can considering the almost fluid order emerging from such micro-scale convolutions help us to see knots as beautiful even without more readily-apparent regularity? May it be that “knotty problems” are close to the heart of the way the world is meant to be? What if the physical turning and folding back on itself of a knotted cord is even representative of the way we make sense of the world as much as being representative of the world itself: like the way we coax words and images to turn back on each other in poetry, connecting in new, messy ways that often seem at cross-purposes to order and clarity; or like the way we bring new relationships into being by giving one thing another’s name?
These are profoundly human ways of engaging the natural world, acknowledging both the material and spiritual. As the artist pointed out to me, tatting is one of the vanishingly few forms of fiber art that have not been mechanically replicated and de-personalized. It still requires intense human engagement. But from that attention to detail, that loving engagement with what are too often seen as problems, Sprinkle brings a new kind of order and beauty to the world and to us, moving us from intimately abstract beauty to a more familiar (and timely) imagery as we step back for a broader perspective.
The picture below shows the whole piece from which the detail above is selected, comprised of more than a thousand knots, about four inches from side to side, and reading as both snowflake and star. The snowflake is another example of small beauty built from natural processes that are regular and random; the star is a beauty of the grandest kind, and one to which humans have always responded with awe and wonder, and to which they have often turned for guidance. This is a poem of the hand, then, making symbolic linkages as well as material ones, bringing beauty out of chaos by knowledge and caring persistence.
Taking a lesson from the biblical Magi, perhaps we also may find wisdom in searching the structure and arrangement of such stars as well as their heavenly kin, and seeing the problems and mysteries, the knots they present to us, as pointers to the Creator we are called to follow. For in these days we celebrate again the God who sees us as something other than problems, and who sent His son, Jesus, to us to make something beautiful of the tangles we have made of our own lives and His creation. Let us then join together with the Church throughout the world and with the whole of Creation as we seek out and worship that perfect Light.
Polaris, knotted cotton thread. about 4” across.
In addition to her tatting and fiber work, Dr. Julie Anne Sprinkle is an award-winning botanical artist, and guides fishing and climbing trips from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she lives with her arborist husband and Springer spaniel. She holds language and political science degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio, and earned a Ph.D. in German from Georgetown University, specializing in comparative medieval literature. More of her creative work may be seen at her website.