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Why One Artist Challenged Herself to Learn 366 Different Knots

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Mar 05 2020

I was feeling a bit sleepy at a design conference this past spring when, upon entering the auditorium for the next talk, I was handed a simple length of rope. My ears perked up with anticipation and curiosity. Enter Windy Chien: ingenious fiber artist who would coach the entire room of conference-goers in learning how to tie a donut knot (it’s adorable and makes for an amazing necklace).

While we tied, she shared the story of leaving her corporate career in design to pursue a year diving deep into the world of knots, teaching herself a new knot every single day. With explorations traversing the historical and functional—from gathering inspiration from sailor’s knots to the future-forward and abstract—her knots have become massive installations, offering an alternative translation for structures like the circuit board and New York City subway system. I left her session deeply inspired by the simple power of dedicating ourselves to daily acts of making and craft—let’s all try it.

In one sentence, who are you?

I make sculpture and installations that elevate the vernacular and inspire awe and understanding; in the context of knots, I work at the intersection of function, design, history, and aesthetics to illuminate what’s most fascinating about knots: the journey of the line.

What do you do? How did you learn it?

I developed fluency in the language of knots—and found my artist voice in the process—by learning one new knot every day of the calendar year in 2016 (which was 366 total knots because of the leap year).

Image by Vero Kherian

How do you get over creative block?

You know, I never have creative block. I have a list as long as my arm of investigations I’m dying to explore and large installation concepts that are awaiting a home.

What was the last item on your to-do list?

I’m currently hiring, so today I'm posting a listing for a studio manager position, ordering custom-made cordage for a hotel project in the Maldives, and later on, I'm heading to Gensler San Francisco for the opening reception for a show I’m having there.

What’s your dream installation site?

An airport. I’m obsessed with the notion of the journey of the line, which is evident in my work. The rich metaphors that arise from journeying and traveling are particularly well suited to airports.

What’s your number one bucket list item?

I really want to see my work in an airport... and then a TED Talk.

Image by Daniel Green

What’s the weirdest or coolest knot you’ve learned? Why?

The five-strand star knot. During my Year of Knots, I tried for over an hour to learn it, only to end up frustrated and in tears. It's complex and the old-timely sailors knotting books were cryptic. But then I mastered it, and now it is my favorite knot to make.

What are you most curious about right now?

People often call me a "fiber artist," but I don’t restrict myself in that way. I’m interested in the journey of the line. So while it’s wonderful to render a line in rope, because rope allows for creating shapes in space without weight, almost anything can be a line. I’m curious about exploring other materials—glass, tubing, metal, and more. I’m still looking for the project that will want me to tie knots out of ethernet cable.

Image by Windy Chien

Who are you creative crushin’ on lately?

Always and forever: artist Janet Echelman, who makes sculpture on the scale of city blocks that respond to wind, weather, and light. I met and befriended her last year and we spent a day in Paris looking at art. Janet is lovely and her art absolutely takes my breath away. She has a permanent installation in Terminal 2 at the San Francisco Airport that is so beautiful, when I have a flight to catch, I will go to the airport early just to gaze at it. Endless respect to Janet Echelman.

Learn more about Windy's craft in her book, The Year of Knots.

  • Alisa Ahmadian

    Business Development Lead, OpenIDEO
    Alisa designs programs and partnerships to help drive social impact. She also loves to make beautiful things and spends her free time as a floral designer.
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