Beyond the Granny

Basics in knot tying

Learning to tie knots can be infuriating. Often the best ones are counter-intuitive, requiring you to untangle the wires in your brain before you start on the rope. Diagrams and text descriptions like ‘pass the working end over the standing part and then under the riding turn and standing part, forming an overhand knot under a riding turn’ don’t help much either, rarely resembling the bird’s nest in your hands.

But there’s one knot that anyone who’s ever tied a shoelace knows how to do – the granny knot. It’s as simple as knots get. Pretend you’re tying your shoelaces and instead of making the loops at the end, pull them through into a tight impenetrable bind. With soft cord, they are almost as difficult to undo as they are to do up, but in the heat of the moment or with cheap cord you can cut later, that’s often not a problem.

I’ve used the granny knot for everything from holding a mattress on the roof of the car to tying cotton thread around an insect’s leg (a story for another time). It’s almost impossible to get wrong and if you do, you've probably made it stronger. Usually tasks requiring the granny knot are defined by haste and temporariness, in that situation the granny knot comes into it’s own. And if halfway through the job you decide you need extra durability, it can be doubled on itself. And if you’re going down that road, why not triple or quadruple it.

Tree Knot

Technically the granny knot is inferior to the reef knot, which is almost identical except for the last twist going over instead of under - a counterintuitive movement to most people. The granny knot is prone to sudden failure and slipping and has been the culprit behind at least one childhood fall from a tree and a go-kart falling apart in a high speed turn. The close cousins of the granny and the reef, the ‘thief’ and the ‘grief’ knot, set out their limitations plainly in the name. So if you require any kind of safety or reassurance from your knot, it definitely pays to think beyond the granny (and the reef knot for that matter).

The language of knots is as great as they are themselves - bights, bends, elbows, flakes, fraps, loops, nooses, lashings and seizings, but it’s reassuring to know there is a knot that doesn’t require special terminology or special training. It might not be perfect, lacking in beauty and strength, but the granny sure is a knot for the people and one that I’ll continue to whip out when needed.