Adventures in Knotwork, Part 1

by Jamie Hall on October 28, 2010


Although I’m mostly interested in the treatment of metals in the middle ages, it’s impossible to develop and explore techniques without a grasp of the styles and iconography of the medieval period. It’s very hard to make sweeping statements about any style of art, but one style seems to be significant throughout the pre-modern history of the British Isles. From the work of Pictish and Celtic masons to the illuminated manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxons, knotwork is a common and important method of decoration.


It’s important to remember that knotwork doesn’t belong to the Celts – it’s a very geometric method that can be seen from Ireland to the Far East, with varying complexity throughout history – it seems limited only by the skills of the practioner, rather than the place in which it was designed. Despite that, Celtic knotwork is the most popular and well-known form in the western world, and it’s the most relevant to the era that I’m studying.


What really fascinates me about the style is the geometric and mathematical structure that underlies the interlace (interlacing is the way the bands pass over and under each other). Initially, it’s very hard to get your head around the process, but once you’ve got it, it becomes relatively clear. I say relatively, because even with practice, I sometimes make really stupid mistakes (see picture, right).

square and cross

I should note, at this point, that I didn’t figure out how to do it on my own. I’m actually indebted to A. Reed Mihaloew, who runs a site called Celtic Computer Art. I recommend it to anyone interesting in drawing knotwork – it’s intended for a computer, but it actually works well for hand-drawing. I’ve looked at many other methods of creating knots, and none of them seem as simple and practical as this one. There’s a tutorial and a set of grids that you can print out, or use with a graphics editor.


Although my first few drawings were, frankly, pathetic, I started being able to put together quite complicated designs. Admittedly, my earlier attempts weren’t in the Celtic style per se; the bands were too thick, and so there was more white space than black space – there is also no room for sweeping curves. What was important, though, was to “get” the structure of the interlace; once the fundamentals are understood, it’s possible to try more unusual shapes.

Almost anything is possible, and the pictures in this article are all very simple, but were done within my first few hours of trying knotwork. Ideally, each section of knotwork should consist of a single band interlacing around itself, and this can be ensured by a couple of methods. The first, for plain rectangular blocks of interlace, is to make sure that the cell height isn’t divisible by the cell width. The second, if the height can be divided by the width, is to place walls within the interlace; the corner piece above right is a good example of that. Another thing to consider are the corners – using the cells as I’ve used them here, the corners tend to be quite curved, when they should ideally be spade-shaped.

There are many more techniques described in the tutorial, including triangular knots and alternative ways of drawing – I recommend anyone to have a go with this, because it’s very rewarding.

Chased Knotwork Bangle in Fine Silver

Fun as it is to draw these knots, my aim is to apply them to metal. I’ve already produced one piece, which is the chased bangle pictured left. I’ll put up a post detailing how this was done later. Having grasped the basics of knotwork, it’s also important that I go beyond the tutorial that Mihaloew wrote. I hope to explore some other methods, of which there are quite a few, and I’ve also started developing a system for producing double-interlace knotwork, which I’ve had some sucess with. Eventually, I’d like to start including freeform shapes and zoomorphics into my knotwork, but that will be a real step up from the work described here; so far, what I’ve done is more geometry than art.


Fire & Hammers October 28, 2010 at 22:39

I learned how to draw knotwork many years ago from “Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction” by George Bain. The photos in the book are very outdated (1950s, I think) but the construction techniques are sound and easy to follow. He also covers Greek key patterns and those fabulous Celtic spirals.

Jamie Hall October 28, 2010 at 23:58

I’ve had a look at Bain’s work – I don’t have the book, but the method described seems to involve erasing parts of the drawing to create the interlace. I found that a bit of an odd way to do it, whereas the above method allows knots to be drawn directly onto a page; with practice, it’s possible to fill spaces without any planning or preperation.

As I said above, I’ve worked out a method for double interlace, that uses a similar approach, and I drew the cross below by hand in about two hours, with no need to erase anything:

Double Interlace Cross

Laurie Kern October 29, 2010 at 00:10

There is a program out there called KnotsBag at

I have used it for just this reason. I have the Mac version but there is a PC and Linux download too.

Jamie Hall October 29, 2010 at 02:07

That’s an impressive looking program. I’ll have to try it at some point. I’m particularly impressed by the fractal-style knots it can create – that something beyond most humans to draw. So far, I’ve tended to steer clear of software for knotwork, because they’re a great time saver, and I will probably use them eventually, but I want to wait until I understand the underlying rules myself before I do.

Loren Damewood November 1, 2010 at 14:22

I’ve always liked knots, and find that drawing the pattern first makes it much easier to render it in wire afterward. You might find my work interesting, as well. There is a lot of metalwork that represents knots, not quite so much that is actually made with knots.

Mitch January 20, 2011 at 11:54

I would recommend looking at Ian Bain’s method of constrcting knotwork – he was the son of George Bain, but comes at the issue from an engineering rather than artistic perspective. The grids he uses ensure that the knot widths are in proper perspective, especially at the corners. I was able to use Aldus Freehand to construct simple knotwork patterns that were excellent for metalwork – the finished result could be scaled to any size and printed out to form cutting patterns that were glued directly to sheet. By judicious cutting of the shapes a realistic ‘3D’ panel could be formed with joints hidden behind the interlacing.

Jamie Hall January 20, 2011 at 19:16

I’ll have a look at Ian Bain’s work, then. The thing that still confuses me with many of the modern construction methods is the requirement for laying out construction lines that need removing later; these wouldn’t have been very practical for ancient artists. And not forgetting that authentic examples of knotwork often have mistakes; should we aim to be too perfect?

I’d like to see your work, though, if you could provide a link. I’m about to embark on a brooch or clasp for exhibition, and I may include some interlace; any advice on applying knotwork to metal would be really appreciated.


Mike Shorer April 12, 2011 at 17:14

If it’s any help, I have a book that is superbly laid out and easy to follow, called Celtic Knots: Mastering the Traditional Patterns, by Aidan Meehan. £12.95, Thames and Hudson. It helps understand the fundamentals of knot/strapwork which is absolutely essential as the layouts towards the end of the book are bloody tricky…….
Good luck,
Mike Shorer
Historic Jewellery Reproduction

Jamie Hall April 13, 2011 at 08:46

Thanks Mike, I’ll see if I can get a copy.

Stephen Walker April 25, 2011 at 02:14

Hi Jamie,
We seem to have a bit more than just Orchid in common. You are already using Aidan Meehan’s method, suggested above, which is very good. Bain has some points which are very good, but Meehan has the authentic traditional method figured out pretty well in a very useful way. I have been working on the problem of cast chip-carving as it was done by medieval Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. There is a paper I did a few years ago about it at Since this was written I have made a few new discoveries that I will be presenting at the Insular Art Conference at York this July.

Jamie Hall April 25, 2011 at 11:06

I’ve come across your website before. A chap called Robin Key from Scotland recommended me to look at it. It’s good to hear from you, anyway. I hope it’s clear that the knotwork above is just me testing the water – I’ve done more since, but having a baby *and* a residency has eaten up all my time!

I’ve worked out a way of using the above grids for double knotwork, which is very eye-catching, and I’ve also done some experiments with embossing copper foil with zoomorphic patterns. That’s a lot harder to do, but I hope that practice will make perfect!

I’ve sent you an email via your company. I hope it gets to you. If not, you can always drop me a email – my address is on the home page of this blog.

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