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Book Review: Ashley’s Book of Knots

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


If you like knots and maritime history from the golden age of sail you probably already know about "Ashley’s Book of Knots". This book was originally published in 1944 by Clifford W. Ashley who sadly died three years after publication.

The most recent version is overseen by the International Guild of Knot Tyers who call Ashley’s book the bible of knot tying.

Ashley takes a much different approach to teaching the reader about knots than other writers on the subject. Each knot description is infused with the history of that knot. It is not an encyclopedic approach where all known facts are strung together. Instead, a carefully chosen tidbit of information gives enough context to the knots for most readers.

Professional sailors today work in a much different environment than sailors on whaling ships just before the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century. The general public might think that knots on modern ships like the Maersk Triple-E are non-existent. To some extent they are correct; we have traded lines and knots for devices that are safer and more durable.

Regulations like SOLAS make the use of some of these techniques questionable. If you choose to use one of them take care until you are sure of adequate performance.

There are many maritime applications that still use lines and knots as the core of their operation. Fishing and recreational industries are heavy on marlinspike seamanship. Applying for these types of jobs will often include practical knot tying for entry level employees. This book does a great job at teaching the basics without the complexity of multi-colored and animated knot diagrams. If you are asked to tie some basic knots for an interview having a few extra practical knots to show will definitely give you extra points.

With individual entries for almost 4,000 different knots, splices, and other rope work anyone can find something that is useful and practical. There are also decorative knots that began modern fiber arts disciplines. These knots are called decorative but in reality often function as a very good replacement for some commercial products.

Two problems faced by cold weather operators are ice build-up and cracking of synthetic materials under strain. Specifically how do you keep a step or standing surface free of ice in spray conditions? And is there a fender that won’t crack in the cold when compressed?

Ashley diagrams many flat and geometric shapes out of light line which is easy to work with for the first time tyer. All of this work scales up to sizes that are useful as mats and fenders. A woven stair tread cover can be beaten free of ice easily and reduces the use of ice melt chemicals which may harm sensitive environments like the Arctic.

Fenders woven from hemp were common in many operations fifty years ago. The move to inflatable vinyl and pvc fenders made sense for ease of handling and storage but these are not suitable in very cold or abusive environments like a side on tow.

The book does not start with the easiest knots but instead groups them by function and shape. A beginner will quickly be overwhelmed if the most basic and useful knots are not marked by a more experienced rigger.

There will always be things to secure with lines on ships. It may be tying the extra bag of potatoes down in the ship pantry or hanging extension cords and hoses. We have all encountered the work of an inexperienced knot tyer who works by the philosophy of “if you can’t tie a knot, then tie a lot”. Why not put this book in the office or library of the ship and avoid those situations while providing quick bites of informational entertainment for your crew?

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