the West Kingdom Needlework Guild

Celtic or Knot?

— 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.

drawing of insular knotwork

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. drawing of Roman knotwork

drawing of Coptic knotwork 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.
drawing of Arabic knotwork

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