On January 4, 2016, Windy Chien decided to learn and tie a new knot every day of the year. She tied four that day to catch up, then mastered a new loop, hitch, bend, or lashing each day. By New Year’s Eve she had 366 knots (2016 was a leap year).
Chien took up this dextrous ritual to expand her artistic palette. This might perplex anyone who’s never given a second thought to such things after tying a pair of shoelaces, but knots have a rich history and take many forms. The Ashley Book of Knots—Chien’s bible, she says, during her Year of Knots project—lists around 3,900 entries, each named and numbered. Chien devoted herself to learning it all, and turned herself into a “little bit of a knot engineer,” she says. She even invented and named a few of her own.
Chien worked at Apple until 2012. Eight years in Mountain View (first as a product manager for iTunes, then as an editorial manager for the App Store) left her tired of screens and keyboards, so she took classes in an array of arts and crafts. She liked woodworking, but especially enjoyed macramé. “I like the repetition of knots—it lets me get into a state of flow,” she says. “But what I’m primarily interested in is how our eyes follow a line. The line is one of the six building blocks of art, and I’m obsessed with it.”
As Chien dug into the craft, she felt stifled. “Macramé is having a renaissance, but it all looks the same to me,” she says. “There’s a limited number of knots used by artists, like three or four.” A cursory glance at Clifford Ashley’s definitive book reveals a far wider world. Devotees of the art can learn standard three-strand knots, and 12-strand or 24-strand sinnet knots. They can try their hand at rolling hitches and Englishman’s double knots. Chien, once she had entered full autodidact mode, came to love the button knot—a large family of knots characterized by the spherical tangle of strings that they produce when tied.
Now that 2016 is over, Chien plans to keep at it. “Everyone on the planet who makes a three-strand knot will make that the same,” she says. “But what if I make it with indigo and black rope and double it? Or I could play with scale, and make a gigantic knot.” She’s even started experimenting with knotting ethernet cables. As for Year of Knots, what started as a learning experiment transformed into a full-fledged art installation slated for an exhibit at the Minnesota Street Project gallery in San Francisco.