Sea History 041 - Autumn 1986

Page 41


Aye, Gordius! -

A Tribute to Clifford W. Ashley by Brion Toss

The Ashley Book of Kn ots, by C liffo rd W. Ashley, has bee n continuously in print fo r 42 years, has so ld over 175 ,000 copies and still e njoys a steadily climbing sales trade. As its author observes in an introd uctory essay, " The urge to write a book is nowadays accepted as ample excuse fo r any delinquency." But no other knot book has achieved anything like the success of Ashley' s. It is a warm, concise, readable and authoritati ve encycloped ia of 3,854 lovi ngly depicted knots. The Intern ati onal Guild of Knot Tyers (IGKT) , a London-based organizati on devoted to the preservati on and increase of knot knowledge , has 28 1 me mbers in 20 countries . The members are seri ous ligaturi sts who know of-or have writte nevery worthwhile word on knots. Ashley's is their bib le. So whe n Geoffrey Budworth , edi to r of the Gui ld ' s quarterly newsletter, " Knotting Matters ," suggested an As hley ti e-a-th o n , the response was immed iate and e nthusiasti c. The scope , vo lume and technical challe nges whic h the book presents are so great th at an atte mpt by a n individual to ti e everythin g in it co ul d take months, eve n years. (As hl ey spent forty years co llectin g kn ots, eleve n years writing the book and draw ing the illustrati o ns .) But a ti e-athon would allow membe rs to contribute according to the ir spec ialti es and spare time, to an ex hibit which wo uld de mo nstrate to th e publi c kn ottin g's ri c hn ess and var ie ty, and a lso pay ho ma ge to th e ir mas te r. The site chosen for the eve nt was the Inigo Jones-des igned C harltow n Town Ho use, a 379-year-o ld , 3-sto ry , brick and sto ne building near Greenw ic h. Its third fl oo r is a maze of rooms large a nd small. On 2 1 June, most o f th e rooms, as well as the lobby , were full o f knots and knot tye rs. Eric Franklin , a professio nal magician since we ll before Ash ley's was printed , discussed the design of Chinese Priest Cords while cas uall y fli cking overh and knots , one handed , into a length of string. Vernon Hughes, hi s copy of Ashley 's on a music stand , finished up the very diffic ult Solid Sinnet chapte r, whi ch begins with a 6-strand braid , triangul ar in cross-section , and fi nishes with a 6 1-strand Pe ntalpha . Des and Liz Pawson, whose ropework li brary surpasses even th at of the National Maritime Museum , are proprietors of Footrope Knots. They suppl y many guild me mbers with books , tools, materi als and encouragement. J. Fletcher turned o ut grommets, short , lo ng, eye, and tail splices of wire rope , and had the bandaged fingers to prove it. Geoff Budworth described an example SEA HISTORY , AUTUMN 1986

of urban rope usefulness: " My VW was s lo wly sliding down an icy London hill . I jumped o ut and managed to bring it to a s top, the n he ld on with o ne hand while I reached unde r the bo nne t fo r the towrope with the oth er hand . I made a bowline around the fro nt bumper , slipped and stumbled uphill to a la mppost and took a turn , then slow ly eased away, letti ng the car slide into a parking space. It was at a n ang le to the pier- I mean c urb--so I got o ut anoth er line, warped in the stern a nd made all fast." John Smith delivered an analys is of the re lati ve security of several bowline vari ati o ns, including a crowd-pleasing Flying Bow line. He then demonstrated 1wen1yone uses fo r hi s favorite knot , the Pile Hitch . Professor Harry As he r demo nstrated how a n inte rmedi ate stab ili zi ng knot makes for a more eas il y adj usted a nd carri ed Jug S ling. Desmond Mandev ille , lately retired from the Foreign Office , explained hi s Alphabend , a knot code comp lete w ith le tters, punctuation marks and arithmetical fun cti on signs. Mr. Mand ev ille is also the inventor of Tramb les (" tu c king ramb les"), in whi ch a s tartin g kno t suc h as a Reef Kn ot is progressive ly a lte red to fo rm a n o rde red seri es o f vari ati o ns, each a legitimate , use ful kn ot in itself. The va ri ations proceed , Bach- like, further and further fro m the startin g th e me, yet always in relati ons hip to it , before returnin g, by an e ntire ly diffe re nt seri es , to the original knot. And Neal Pawson , twe lve-year-o ld so n of Des and Li z, de mo nstrated a ropemak ing mac hine of hi s ow n design w hich he made fro m Lego parts. Hi s piece de resista nce fo r the day was a 2ft length of 1/4 in. di a mete r , 4-strand , cablela id rope, a constructi o n in which each of the strands is made fro m a smalle r 4-strand rope, which in turn is made of le ngths of twi sted line n yarn. Neal knelt befo re hi s brightly colored machine , ri g ht hand on the crank whic h twi sted the strands, left hand on the fair lead , or "gate," wh ic h regul ated th eir conjoinm e nt , attending to hi s task with the sere ne concentration of a koto player. * These tyers and hundreds of other tyers , tourists and members of the press c1w.vded in among knot-laden tables SUITOunded by Ash ley ' s button knots, turk 's heads, ring hitc hes, mi scellaneous hold fasts , tricks a nd puzzles, odd splices, lashings , slings, mo nkey ' s fists and chest beckets. They compared tackle confi gurati ons, speculated on the limits of careless bell ropes and traded stori es of struggles with the in fa mous Ashley's index.

But perhaps the most significant thin g about the event was its air of refinement and innovation, its lack of orthodoxy. Near the e nd of hi s book, after describing what surely seems to be every conceivable convo lution of line, Ashley writes that "There are still old knots th at are unrecorded, and so lo ng as there are new purposes for rope, there will also be new knots to discover." In this spirit , Guild members gathered, hands full of cordage , to discuss procedures, material s and applicati ons of which Mr. Ashley had never dreamed . They turned the ex hibit into an adventu re, demonstrated the surpri sing vitality of their ancient art, and by surpass ing him , gave their teacher the greatest possible tribute. w

Mr. Toss , a native of Kentucky, has practiced this "ancient art" for nearly two decades. Now a resident of Maine, he helped rig the Eli ssa, and authored the recently published book, The Ri gger's Apprentice, reviewed in SH 40. The Ashley Book of Knots is still in print, published by Doubleday, New York , and available for $24.95hb . For further information on the International Guild of Knot Tyers , write Geoffrey Budworth, 45 Stanbourne Way , Upper Norwood , London SE19 2PY, England. Rare and Out-of-Print Books

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*The koto is a long Japanese zither having thirteen silk strings .