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History of Celtic Knotwork

During the 7th century BC, Celts from continental Europe crossed over to Britain and began to settle. Artwork was, and remains, a big part of their culture. The most instantly recognizable form of Celtic artwork is their intricate knotwork designs. As with many other cultural artforms, the art of the Celts was both decorative and religious, and often incorporated symbolism and was used to tell stories. Both animals and humans are often depicted in Celtic artwork, but in very imaginative and stylized ways. Anthropomorphic (human) and zoomorphic (animal) designs are often quite contorted, with long and interweaving body parts. This was due to the Celtic belief that it was forbidden to copy the work of the Creator.

Anthropomorphic (human) and zoomorphic (animal) Celtic designs

The intricate knotwork designs evolved from simpler plaitwork (braiding), which can be found in the artwork of many other cultures, including Egyptian, Roman and Greek (and even Asian cultures; China has a long tradition of knotwork, though it is usually true knots tied with cord). Plaitwork consists of repeating straight lines and curves; knotwork breaks these lines and creates more complicated interweaving.

Celtic knotwork column and border designs

These designs can be incredibly complex. For one example, Professor J. O. Westwood observed on a page of the “Book of Armagh”, “In the space of about a quarter of an inch… I counted with a magnifying glass no less than one hundred and fifty-eight interlacements of a slender ribbon… No wonder that tradition should allege that these unerring lines should have been traced by angels.” As indicated by this statement, ancient Celtic knotwork is also known for its exactness: errors in interlacement are simply not found, no matter how complex the design.

This is in stark contrast to much mass-produced products available today that attempt to mimic Celtic knotwork, but fail miserably to do so, either with mistakes in the interlacement, incomplete knots, or failure to interweave at all.

There are no records of how the ancient Celtic artisans managed to create these beautiful, intricate, and unerring designs. It is only more recently, in the last century or so, that artists have tried to make a good attempt to come up with methods of construction for this beautiful artform. Without knowing how to construct Celtic knots, the only option is to copy existing designs (which in the case of the most complex, is nearly impossible to do). But by using a method of construction, it’s possible to create new designs. This has led to a resurgence of this artform, and it’s now possible to find beautiful Celtic artwork created by modern artists, all over the world, including here at Mountain Thyme, in sunny Southern California! I draw from several sources, including my ever-growing library of books, to learn about different knotwork construction methods, and get inspiration for my own designs. I have my own aesthetic preferences that influence the shapes I use, making my artwork truly original, and with my own personal flair. I make sure that, like the ancients, there are no errors to be found in my interlacement, and that my knots are of superior quality to those found on many mass-produced items. My hope is that by placing my designs on such every-day items as T-shirts, that this unique and beautiful artform can be shared even more widely!

View all the Celtic designs on Mountain Thyme by clicking here!