My favorite part of the Sailing Collective is getting to meet interesting people with a diversity of life’s work and passions. I am often pleasantly surprised by the people I get to sail with, and in the case of Windy Chien I was excited in advance to have a notable knotter on board.

Windy sailed with chef Lauren Gerrie and I along the Amalfi coast and the Gulf of Naples on a boat full of close friends that she gathered to explore with.

Even before we left the dock, Windy had set out on foot to look for the local ships chandlery to browse the selection of rope and cordage. At the risk of putting our shipmates to sleep, we talked about knots A LOT over a week of sailing, getting into the minutia of it in a way that only two knot lovers could. Not satisfied with a mere week of this, I caught up with windy over the phone after the trip and below are some highlights of our conversation:


Ross:
Let’s jump right into it. What does a professional knotter do?

Windy:

I have a few things in the works at the moment: Sunbrella has asked me to collaborate with them on a big booth at the Pulse Art Fair Which is the contemporary art fair that runs in Miami next to Art Basel. I’ve heard that it’s actually cooler than Art Basel – I think Art Basel might just be for rich people now. It’s going to be a big full-size booth of my work so I’m going to make a knot wall like the Year of Knots (the project where I learned one new knot every day in 2016) but we’re going to do it in an ombre color pattern.

And then… what else am I doing? I’m making another Knot Installation for a client who is building a house from scratch right here in the Bay Area; the male half of the couple is a sailor so they are really into knots.

Also, National Geographic asked me to make a piece of work for them and I am going to create it onsite and install it in Washington DC where they are redesigning their new headquarters. After I designed the whole thing and was going to make it out of paracord, they surprised me with something really exciting! They decided that they wanted to use some rope from some of their National Geographic sponsored expeditions so they are sending me all this rope from notable people like Conrad Anker — he’s sending me some rope with a story of what expedition he used it on — which is super fun and there are 10 other explorers, so I get to use all of this rope that has super-rich life already in it.

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Windy Chien

Ross:

What is your stranger pitch?  How do you say what you do to someone as quickly as possible?

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Windy Chien

Windy:

I try not to pigeon hole myself too much so I usually say that I am an artist but if you say that to someone in an elevator they are like “what do you actually do?” [laughs] so I usually follow that up by saying that my language is fiber and knotting and I also will say that every knot that I know is like a letter in an alphabet and letters form words and words communicate so knots are the language that I am currently speaking. And that usually gets people really excited.

Ross:

How was it to board a boat? what knots struck you from sailing that you got excited about?

 

Windy:

Sailing with Sailing Collective was so incredible for the obvious reasons and, as it concerns my work, I’m familiar with and can make hundreds and hundreds of knots, but to me they are beautifully designed aesthetic objects, and I understood their functions but had never actually been in the place where they are functioning. So with sailors and boats – and 90 percent of knots were invented by sailors – it was cool to see each knot do its one specific thing that it does best. The first one that I noticed on board that was super exciting was the Halyard Hitch. It was tied with really beautiful bright yellow rope and I believe that that knot is meant to attach to the top of one of the sails? So that you can pull the sail up to the top of the mast. It has to be a really strong knot but it also can’t cinch and get tight, otherwise you would never be able to take it off. So that was so awesome for me to actually see that knot being used.

[As an aside: this was an incredible moment because I watched Windy on day one just wander the boat looking at line and knots and she saw this one and asked me “is this the Halyard?” without looking up to see where the line was run or figuring it out mechanically like you might expect but instead recognizing a very specialized knot and working backward from there. ]

Halyard Hitch

Halyard Hitch

Windy Chien

Ross:

Tell me about being a part of the International Guild of Knot Tiers

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Windy Chien

Windy:

The International Guild of Knot Tyers was started in the UK decades ago and there are chapters all over the world now. They are very lo-fi; they have their website but mostly they send out a little “zine” every quarter — and you can get their whole archive on CD-Rom — and it brings together knot tyers from all over the world. Most of the action occurs on the discussion boards where there is lively conversation about how to tie knots, asking questions about new knots, and vetting them with the membership to find out if indeed it’s a new knot or not. There are all kinds of science people on it who like to sketch knots out with software that can model knots from a mathematical viewpoint. I’m not really an active participant because these guys know knots in a way that’s different from the way that I know knots and they get really specific about things. When I started getting a lot of press about The Year of Knots, someone mentioned it on the message board and a lot of people kind of took the project down a little bit and were shit talking about things like the frayed ends on some of my knots. In this particular corner of the knotting world, most of the people who call themselves knotters are men and those attitudes come with the territory, so I just try to avoid that when it comes up. But, that being said, I’ve met many people there who are great.

Then there are other worlds within the knotting world that are primarily women. Fiber and textile arts, like knitting and weaving, are all subsets of the knotting world and those are dominated by women. Certainly the heyday of fiber art in the ‘60s and ‘70s was all women and they were making monumental, massive scale, beautiful stuff. So it’s funny how the knotting worlds break down by gender a little bit. The other knotting world that I like to observe is the paracord world: the outdoors guys, the survivalists. They are making things like knife sheaths and outdoor survival bracelets. I literarily saw a grenade cozy. Those guys are really prolific when it comes to making YouTube videos about how to do things . . . and because paracord comes in a billion colors a lot of them have, in my opinion, a pretty sophisticated color sense; so that’s kind of nice to see.

 

Ross:

I was trying to remember the two strand diamond knot that you taught me on our trip and I was looking for it my all of my knotting books and it was really hard to follow along and I did end up finding up finding a paracord guy on youtube who got me through it.

Windy:

For the hard knots you either have to find a video or a really good diagram because all of the old fashioned knotting books that are just ink drawings are really hard to follow. The modern world is really helpful in learning knots!

 

Ross:

In your upcoming book are you teaching knots?

Windy:

Yeah totally! Half of it is my story about how I became an artist and learned the language of knotting, so that’s a lot of words. Then the other half of it is about 25 of my favorite knots, and for that part, we have gorgeous photographs, and I broke down the steps way more than I think any other knotter would, because I wanted a beginner to be able to learn them. Some of the knots have 25 photographs in order to break it all down super bite sized. But it’s not like I want to encourage everybody who reads the book to become knotters; I do want to encourage people to keep their hands busy and keep thinking with their hands.

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Windy Chien

Ross:

Something that I remember from our trip is that you were very good at teaching knots, certainly better than anyone else I had ever leaned from. It felt like you had developed pedagogy around how you were describing it you were able to articulate something that is hard to articulate; it’s three dimensional and it’s hard to get words around how rope beds into shapes.

Sailing Collective Fenders

slippery clove hitch over a rail

Windy Chien

Windy:

Yeah it’s true and I like your use of the word pedagogy for this. I love new languages and I love subcultures. I love heavy metal, for instance, as much as I love knotting. Subcultures of all sorts are super interesting to me. Part of what’s interesting is learning the language to communicate. Each subculture has language they use when talking to one another. Learning to properly communicate with knotters is a form of respect. So that’s what I try to do.

Ross:

Everybody that I know that loves knots got into knots through their functionality in either mountaineering or sailing and you came at it from this very different angle when you stepped onto the sailboat what was that experience like?

Windy:

My mom taught me macramé — picture 1970s plant hangers — and I remember loving it but then I never picked it up again, so when I quit my corporate job 5 years ago I took a refresher class in macramé and within 5 minutes of taking the class I was like “oh I fucking love this!” I had forgotten how much I loved the repetitive movements of knotting. So I did that for about a year and I was having some success with selling pendant lamps that I make out of rope, but I was starting to feel constrained by the limited number of knots that macramé actually uses. Macramé only uses three or four knots over and over again, so it started to feel a little too repetitive and also my work was looking like everybody else’s. When you are working with the same number of knots, it’s really hard to make work that is original. I totally value being original and having your own voice, so one day I had the lightbulb moment where I realized “If I learn more knots, my work will be more original.” I gave myself a task that I was going to learn one knot every day for a year and that became this big thing, that’s what the book is about. The Year of Knots was done as a series and it became a single work of art: at the end of the year, I had 366 knots on the wall as a beautiful large piece of art. So that’s how I got into it.

While I was in my studio over that year, I would page through my knotting books, especially the Ashley Book of Knots, which is my favorite, and I would look at the knots and think “oh that’s really beautiful, I guess I’ll learn how to make one” and while I was making it I would, of course, learn about what the knot was used for so I learned their functionality in the theoretical way, but I never — like literally never — used them for the functionality. I would make rope into these designed aesthetic objects, and I got a history lesson, but I didn’t get an on-the-ground lesson until I went sailing with you, Captain Ross. We just had such a good trip in the Gulf of Naples. I had informed you in our pre-trip emails that I was into knotting and that I was an artist and I really didn’t know what to expect because of how I’ve been treated on the internet on the knotting message boards. I didn’t know how you were going to take that, but you were so nice and it was such a good time with a fellow knot appreciator.

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Windy Chien

Ross:

I fully agree! For me, it was such a treat to see you tie some of these knots that I’ve only ever seen in books. Like you, I love flipping through the Ashley Book of Knots but I’m never going to tie a lot of these knots and to see you tie them from memory was really a great experience. Let’s do it again sometime.

Windy:

I can’t wait! When January arrives we are going to start thinking about where we are going to sail this year.

To see Windy’s work visit www.windychien.com

Her book, The Year of Knots: Modern Projects, Inspiration, and Creative Reinvention will be available September 17, 2019. Pre Order here: http://windychien.com/theyearofknots

Book Cover Year of Knots Windy Chien

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