Technique of the Week — Celtic Knotwork

It’s Saturday, time to post one of handouts from the various and numerous classes and workshops I have taught over the years! This gives me a bit of a break from writing, and hopefully is a bit of creative inspiration for my readers. Since I’ve been posting Celtic art for the last three days, I thought I’d finish up the series with a post about some of the finer points of making Celtic knot work. It also just so happens that today is “Teach Your (Bloggers) Well” day in the Daily Prompt!

This isn’t a tutorial, since I’d really have to be there to show you, but more of a background about what Celtic art is and some of the history behind it. If you are already doing a bit of knotwork, the intent is to give you some ideas for embellishment and improving the look of your own work; if you aren’t, I hope it helps you to look more knowledgably at Celtic art, and maybe even to try some! There are a lot of great tutorials available on the web and in books, and I’m including some links here for some good ones.

I’ve also put a gallery of my own Celtic artwork in the sidebar so you can look at them all in one place. The dividers here, which are knotwork, spiral, and key patterns, were designs I made for a Celtic paperchain kit one Yuletide of yore.

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Celtic Knotwork Workshop 

Knotwork is a space-filling decoration, generally worked within a defined space such as a border or circle, or even to fill an entire page. It is based on the idea of plaiting actual cords, and has been used since antiquity by many cultures all over the world. What makes Celtic knotwork (and the Anglo Saxon knotwork from which it was derived) unique is its use of breaks in the plait, resulting in far more intricate and complex patterns.

One of a set of designs for a paper chain kit I made one long-ago Yuletide.

Some properties of Celtic knotwork:

Over-and-under construction — the cords alternate over and under as in a plait, alternating one over to one under. Two overs or unders together mean something is not correctly constructed. (But even the most skilled monk- artists of olden times occasionally had designs in which they could not resolve this issue) Check your overs-and-unders carefully before finalizing your design.

Uniform cord width – consistent width of cords except in some transitions to another section or design. Smooth, uniform cords contribute to the beauty of the work.

Patterns should ideally be one continuous cord if possible, two cords if necessary. Avoid closed loops.

Strive for graceful curves (in a curved pattern). You will come to know what makes for authenticity and good balance within a pattern through practice: observation and imitation of traditional motifs.

Pointed returns – when a cord turns back on itself, it is generally pointy on the outside edge, sometimes curved on the inside. There are variations on the pointy shapes, some graceful like feathers, others more straight sided like arrows, some bulging like playing-card spades.

repetition – the repeat of small patterns, over and over, gives knotwork its distinctive look and rhythm. Lack of repetition and pattern is not knotwork, it is spaghetti.

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Colour and decoration

Try out different colour schemes by colouring swatches of the colours you want to use next to each other, or photocopy multiple copies and try out the colours right on the design. Some difference in value (light to dark) is necessary between background and the cords in order for the knots to show up well.

some colour possibilities:

dark background, light knots

dark knots, light background

multi-coloured knots, blending gradually or changing after an “under”.

multi-coloured background, blending gradually or changing in the interior of shapes

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decorative cord treatments:

internal lines

internal dots

external dots

doubling of cord (over-and-under pattern must be modified to accommodate)

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Different cord widths:

broad — allows internal decoration of cord if desired, maximum line colour impact; sometimes tight on curves; can be doubled into two cords (over-and-under adjusted to alternate cords).

medium — allows freer flowing of curves, some internal decoration

narrow —  allows more space for background colour or textural treatments, external decoration of cords such as dots; can be interwoven with wide bands as secondary design for striking effect (standard over and under rules will apply)

Celtic paperchains1

Finishing your knotwork piece (transfer method also useful for repeated patterns):

When you have worked out the construction and all the rough spots, it’s time to do a finished design on a clean piece of paper. For this you will need to transfer the design. Here’s one easy method:

Trace the design on tracing paper with a graphite pencil. Turn the tracing paper over and trace it again on the back (not on top of the good paper!). Then flip it back over, put it in place where you want the final design to be, and trace it once more. You will probably need to refine the resulting transfer a bit at this point. You can now draw over it with pen and erase the pencil lines, or colour over it with coloured pencils or paint.

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“The Celts” by Gerhard Herm — history of the Celtic peoples

“Art of the Celts” by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing — a scholarly but very readable book, liberally illustrated

“Celtic Art — The Methods of Construction” by George Bain — the classic; a great source of design

“Celtic Knotwork” by Ian Bain (George Bain’s son — also has books on constructing other types of Celtic art) — Ian found his father’s construction methods hard to follow, and had requests from others who were having difficulty, so developed his own.

“Knotwork — The Secret Method of the Scribes” by Aidan Meehan — this is a slightly different version of the cell method we are using in this workshop; may be the original source.

“Celtic Design — A Sourcebook of Patterns and Motifs” — by Iain Zaczec — no tutorial, but a gorgeous selection of many kinds of design, taken directly from historical objects.

Numerous books by Courtney Davis — his books contain some of the best modern treatments of Celtic design, true to tradition but very definitely original applications. Many have highly coloured illustrations.

“The Book of Kells” — selections, reprinted in colour, Dover Books

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Wikipedia — numerous articles: just start with “Celts” and follow the links in that article to get a thorough overview.

If you google “Celtic knotwork tutorial” you will find lots of helpful sites. Here are just a few:  — a site with lots of information, history and links; not too much on the construction end. — the person on this site has developed a computer font for making Celtic knots! — some history and pictures and links to tutorials

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Three Thousand Years of Celtic History in a Nutshell
— the condensed-book treatment from the sources listed above

Who are the Celts? Where did they come from? We often think of Ireland and Scotland as the quintessential Celtic homelands, but in fact, both countries were the last outposts of a great diaspora of people that spanned the European continent over three millennia.

The Celts emerged, as far as we know, as a distinct culture and language group in the Hallstatt area north-east of Italy in the late bronze age. These tribes of the first millennium BC spoke Proto-Celtic, the Indo-European derived common ancestor of later Celtic languages. Both the culture and the people flourished there with the introduction of iron-working and improved agricultural practices but eventually the centre of the culture, though not the widespread population, moved westward to the La Tène area of what is now Switzerland. Miners of salt, tin and copper, and traders in these goods as well as amber, wool, leather, furs and gold, they influenced and were influenced by the other cultures around them, including the Greeks and the Etruscans. From the beginning, they were experts with horses, which gave them increased mobility for both trade and war. Celtic warriors were a thorn in Rome’s side, invading and settling in the northern Italian peninsula, and eventually sacking Rome itself.

Whether due to population pressures, the expansion of the Roman Empire, the search for fresh mines and new markets, or, as has been romantically suggested by some, a general restlessness, the Celts expanded gradually westward until they reached Ireland and Britain in the early iron age. These tribes became what is now referred to as the Insular Celts: the Gaels (Ireland and Scotland), the Welsh, the Cornish and the Bretons, while their relatives left on the mainland became the Continental Celts: among many others, the Gauls (France), the Galatians (Anatolia, in present day Turkey), and the Celtiberians and Celtici (Iberian peninsula, now Spain).

The Gauls in particular are well known for their interactions with Rome, and eventually became Romanised, as did the other Continental Celts, although in turn they influenced Rome in military matters and horsemanship, often serving in the Roman calvary. The Romans also adopted the Celtic calvary sword, the spatha, and Epona, the Celtic horse goddess. There was mingling of the Celtic art with Roman as well, both sides being influenced. The Continental Celts eventually adopted Latin as their language, while the Insular Celts kept theirs, which developed into Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, and Breton.

Celtic art, as used by art historians, refers to the art of the La Tène period in Europe, while what is generally thought of today by the general public as Celtic art is the style developed in the early medieval period in Britain and Ireland, which is called Insular art in art history.

Both styles utilize extensive geometrical decoration, and have incorporated many features from other cultural sources. Figurative subjects are used sparingly and in a highly stylized manner. Circular forms, spirals, and triskeles (or triskelion) are common to both forms.

Before the conquest by the Romans, the La Tène style often borrowed elements from Roman, Greek, and other foreign styles. Later, Celtic elements found their way into Roman popular art such as pottery.

The history of the Celtic knotwork or interlace patterns of Insular art, which we think of characteristic of Celtic art, is reported variously as having come to Ireland with manuscripts from the Coptic monks of Egypt and Syria, or from the Germanic people such as the Anglo-Saxons. Some sources say the Anglo Saxons developed their style from the Celts. Since there was a great deal of interaction in the arts even in those times, there is probably a bit of truth in all those scenarios.

However the knotwork arrived, the Celts’ enthusiastic employment of these designs in stonework, metalwork, and illuminated manuscripts still survives to show us their great skills. The finest works of this Insular art style date from the 7th to the 9th centuries, after which repeated Viking raids curtailed cultural life.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, a series of movements and trends grouped under the name Celtic Revival took place that revived interest in the literature, poetry art, music, and history of the Celtic peoples across north-western Europe. In many Celtic countries, the Celtic languages have been revived and in some cases reconstructed. In Ireland, the movement was particularly strong, especially in regard to art and music, in part a reaction to modernization, and also in response to the need for a national identity.

During this period, the style of early Celtic art influenced the Art Nouveau style, and people began to revive the methods of constructing the decorative elements used in the heyday of the Insular style. The interlace style, though possibly of Germanic or other origins, has become a primary motif in Celtic art as we know it today — a fitting notion for the art of a people whose influence spanned the whole of Europe, and who were happy to incorporate elements of the cultures with which they were in contact. The popularity of the Celtic style today shows no sign of waning, a testament to the appeal of its flexibility as decoration and the beauty of its graceful lines.

moontide colour

© Karen Gillmore 2014

4 responses to “Technique of the Week — Celtic Knotwork

  1. Hi there!
    Thanks for following. I’m a happy camper now you are joining me as I trip around by RV, plane, car and time machine to the past.
    Comments, compliments, critiques and wisecracks are most welcome.
    You have a great blog. “See” you again soon.
    Which Way Now 101 aka Carol


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