This is a piece intended to be a page on The Chinese Knotting Homepage that I wrote back in 2006, but never posted. Maybe I’ll turn around and post it there right after I post it here. Maybe I’ll wait a few more years. Who knows? 8)
One of the aspects of Chinese Knotting that I find most enjoyable is that it is so portable and requires few tools. This is not to say that there are no tools appropriate to the art or that there are no tools to make certain tasks easier (never fear, tool junkies!!), only that the basic kit is fairly small.
The very basics of the craft requires only string, a pair of scissors (and your hands). Next I would add a bobby pin (to stand in for extra fingers to hold things in place), although obviously this is not a traditional tool. Next up would be a set of tweezers, a fid or a blunt awl. Each of these items serves the same purpose (to help manipulate the string when the designs get tight/compact), so it is basically a question of preference which tool(s) you prefer to use or (sometimes) can find. Next I would want a bodkin (a blunt needle-type object for cord, you may want a self-threading needle if you are working with nylon/polyester/leather). Lastly, depending on the type of string you are using, would be a match (lighter, candle, lamp with open flame) or tape (clear plastic/cellophane will do, packing or duct tape is overkill).
This is my basic kit that I carry with me at all times (my preference is tweezers, but I am trying to learn to use an awl).
What kind of tweezers might you want? Most importantly they should be blunt. Also without serrations (or very soft serrations). It needs to not have parts that will catch on the fibres of your cord and do more harm than good. A good length is 20cm or 5” to give you leverage when needed but if you find blunt but shorter, that’s still fine. Longer ones tend to be thicker, so you need to start worrying whether or not the tool will still do it’s job of getting into places where your fingers can’t. When playing with fire, it is often useful to have 2 tweezers, but a pair of (smooth, unserrated!) pliers can help out or a crafter’s third hand device.
What kind of awl might you want? Well, when I’m talking about awls, I am talking about a pointy object that is generally tapered, but not too pointy (again, so that it won’t catch on the fibres of your cord). A handle is also useful. You want a part that gets into the small spaces, you want it to be comfortable to hold in your hand and occasionally apply leverage. Also, not breaking when you use it and not marking up your cord are useful characteristics. Even in a pinch, try not to use a pen or pencil!
What kind of fid might you want? Some fids that I have seen greatly resemble the awl-type object I was just talking about, but some are hollow which is also occasionally useful.
What about those bodkins and self-threading needles? Some bodkins are simply big blunt needles. Some are wire arrangements with a big eye. Some are (small!) metal contraptions with moving parts that grip your cord. Some are flat metal pieces with a hole or a flap for the cord. The most important characteristics of your bodkin is that it can handle the size of cord you intend to use and that it not catch on the fibres of your cord. A self-threading needle is a hollow tube with one end closed and the open end threaded (as if to accept a screw). STN’s need to be sized to fit your cord so that it grips properly, although there is some leeway with synthetic cords as they can be melted into the opening.
Flaming devices are usually for dealing with synthetic cords, although silk, hemp or cotton can occasionally use a little burning action to tidy things up. Nylon and polyester (polypropelene, etc) have the interesting characteristic of melting when the appropriate kind of heat is applied (too much heat and it can burn in a manner distressingly like a fuse, also too big a melted blob can result in dripping. the dripping melted blob is sticky!). This is most useful in the case of the cord ends to prevent raveling and also to melt 2 cord ends together (sometimes called a butane splice). To sear a cord end, a match is sufficient. If you are searing a lot of cord ends then a lighter might be more appropriate. A candle is also useful in that instance or if you want to melt your cord ends together. I used to use a candle until I managed to tip the candle over after using it for a while and spilling wax all over the table. Now I use an alcohol lamp (with a nice wide base, no more tipping!). I have also heard of people hardening their whole piece in the oven (eg. carefully, and in a controlled manner, gently melting the whole works) in the case of neckerchief slides and the like. Dilute glue or starch can also be used to stiffen a work. In fact, nylon has the interesting feature of hardening like a rock when cyanoacryllic glue is applied. This can be used to make a self-needle or making sure that something you’ve wrapped with nylon stays firmly wrapped.
Now, at this point, some of you are saying “What about a pin board?”. Good question. Since this is my list, you need to keep in mind my idiosyncrasies (of which there are many). I would jump through several fairly complicated hoops to avoid using a pin board. That’s just me. If you are a happy pin board user (perhaps you already have one for macrame or sewing or …) and are unconcerned about portability, then go right ahead, I wish you much joy and success. This is not to say that I never use one. Some knots are just so involved and complicated there is no avoiding a pin board. A good pin board is probably made of cork or similar self-healing material. You can buy ones specially made for macrame and also quilting. Other good substitutes are cork hot pads (trivets for hot pots so you don’t burn your table, although some might be too small depending on the knot in question) or even a firm pillow or seat cushion. Quick and easy from stuff you have around your house might be a folded towel or some corrugated cardboard (wrapped with a tea towel or not).
Other tools for your kit should include needle and thread. Perhaps some beads or a variety of glues (the beads not technically speaking tools).
If you are tying a particular knot over and over (or especially if you are tying a knot in wire) then you might want a jig (some sort of framework around which to tie your knot). This usually takes the form of nails pounded into wood, although I often make temporary jigs or templates out of paper or plastic that are destroyed in the using. There are reusable templates on the market available to purchase for a number of knots although so far they only handle one size (or smaller) of cord. Some sennits benefit from being tied on a knotting (or braiding) stand (or table). Similar (or exactly the same as) a marudai.
Before too long, you are probably going to want to make tassels to go with your knotwork. The tools for that may be as simple as some cardboard or a random book (of appropriate size) from your bookshelf up to specialized tassel-making frameworks.
Lastly, you may find that a particular project requires a hand-made cord. Two of the most popular methods of cord-making involve twisting or braiding (thread, other cords, ribbon, etc). Twisting cord can be done in the hand, with a pencil, with a (slightly modified) drill, with a spinning wheel, with a geared specialty tool, up to industrial machines. Cord can be braided in the hand, tied to a doorknob, tied to your toes, with your fingers, with a card, with a braiding stand (marudai, kakudai, takadai, etc, etc) up to full-fledged industrial machines. Standard commercial cords can also be embellished/embroidered by hand or with a sewing machine.