— by Eowyn Amberdrake, Caid Company of Broderers
“Celtic knotwork” is often treated as if it were
a single word: if it’s knot- work, it must be Celtic,
right? Well, no — there are many different styles of knotwork
designs from many different cultures.
It would actually be more accurate to use the term Insular
knotwork for the stylized knotwork seen in the British Isles
from about the 6th century, since not only Celts, but Anglo-Saxons
and Vikings were all creating very similar interlacing designs.
Most insular knotwork
(left) has strands that consistently alternate over and
under. The knots are complete and closed. Several independent
“knots” may be packed in side by side, separated
by narrow “breaks.” Many variations appear,
including double-stranded knots, knots in circles, diagonal
separations between knots, vertical and horizontal knots,
and switch knots.
These designs were drawn in manuscripts, cast and soldered
in metal, and carved in stone, wood, and bone. While the
designs are culturally compatible, we have little direct
evidence for their use in embroidery or weaving.
|Before there was Celtic knotwork, there was
Roman knotwork (right), from the beginning
of the first millennium on. Roman knotwork did not use break
patterns, but covered the whole area with a familiar basket
weave or twist pattern. Roman knots appear painted and as
part of large floor mosaics, but we have no direct evidence
for the Roman use of this motif in embroidery or clothing.
||Coptic knotwork (left), from
Egypt and nearby Mediterranean countries, is also earlier
than Insular knotwork, but similar. Some scholars think
knotwork in Coptic Bibles of the 3rd century led directly
to the later Insular knot-work. Coptic knotwork, however,
is not done on as fine a scale. It also doesn’t seem
to use double-stranded interlacing. The Copts used knotwork
in manuscripts and in their weavings, and there are surviving
textiles decorated with simple knotwork.
|Arabic knotwork (4th drawing)
was derived from the Copts after the Arab conquest of the
area in the 7th century. Unlike other types, Arabic knotwork
does not always keep to a strict over-under rhythm: sometimes
symmetry is more important. Knotwork is seen decorating
Arabic manuscripts and in woven or embroidered.