Monday, July 20, 2015

Tassels&Co: Turk's head knot basics

In today's post I want to talk about turk's head knots. Turk's head knots are one of these things that make or break your Medieval purse reconstructions. Tassel-heads were hardly ever left bare on extant pieces, and one of the most popular ways to cover them was with these knots.
They were also used by themselves, i.e. without a skirt or tassel, worked around a wooden, leather or parchment core. They embellished the corners or drawstrings of purses, pillows and cushions, or were even used as beads (see images below).
Turk head's knots were made from a number of different materials. In the image above you can see from top to bottom: silk braid, gold gimp and silk gimp. Gimp is a type of cord made by wrapping a thread around a thicker core thread (or bundle of threads). The cord or gimp the knots were made from, varied not only in material but also in thickness or diameter. The thickeness of the cord you'll be working with will influence the size and look of your knot. In the photograph above you can clearly see that the two silk knots are three-pass knots, while the one in the middle made from a thinner cord is a four-pass knot. The number of passes (i.e. how many times you go round when working the cord to make your knot). Medieval knots are often made from fine cord and can use up to seven or more passes.

Although I have never seen turk's head knots made from braided cord on purses before, I did spot them on a c. 1500 rosary in the Museum of London earlier this year. In my attempt to recreate these knots in the first image, you can see that my fingerloop braid (a round 5-loop braid) in the first image is slightly less tight than the original rosary beads, but you get the idea.
When I tied my first knots about 8 years ago, I also used fingerloop braids, even though back then I didn't know there were actually historical examples of this technique. Life is full of wonderful coincidences, isn't it?

Silk gimp is what I have been using mostly for making my knots, even though it is not the most common option for purses. You can see two purses with silk gimp knots here and here.
The pink knot above is a commercially made one, the yellow knot is made from - not so perfectly done - handmade silk gimp, and the blue monkey fist knot (a knot type that in some time will get a blogpost of its own) from much smoother handmade gimp.
Silk gimp is very hard to come by. Most products on the market are viscose wrapped around a cotton core, and are of such poor quality that they will leave you behind in a very frustrated mood. Making it yourself is not very difficult, but it is a timme-consuming job. There is an old (well, almost ancient by now) tutorial on this blog for making silk gimp, but it needs urgent updating.

The most common materials for turk's head knots on extant pieces are metal thread gimp, or thick metal passing thread. The difference between the two is that metal gimp is made from a round metal thread wrapped around a linen or silk core, while passing thread is made from flattened metal thread wrapped around a core.
Both types are pretty easy to tell apart. Metal gimp has very distinctive perpendicular stripes, as you can see below:

The problem with metal thread gimp, is that it is more or less impossible to find. I had the spool below custom-made. Of course you could also try to make it yourself in much the same way as silk gimp.

Knots made from passing thread can be easily recognized on extant purses because often the metal parts have been rubbed off almost completely, leaving only the core threads behind. This is the reason why I prefer gimp over passing thread. Passing thread does not only wear off more quickly, it also damages much more easily during the knot-making process, which is not very encouraging for a beginner knot-maker.

My advice to any beginning knot-maker would be to start out with using braided cord. Making a five-loop fingerloop-braid is not too hard, and you'll need to learn this skill for making the drawstrings of your purse anyway. The silk needed for your braid is easily available from a number of suppliers (for instance Devere Yarns or naturally dyed silk from L'Atelier de Micky). It is the most forgiving material to tie knots with.
When you've had a few practice runs with braided cord, try making your own silk gimp. You should have gained enough confidence by now to know the whole knot-tying process by heart, so you can focus on the details and handle a slightly more advanced material. Stick to 3-pass knots to begin with.
After this, you can start thinking about using metal gimp, and using thinner silk gimp, making more complicated four-, five- or six-pass knots.
And finally, you should be able to manage knots made with passing-thread. I'm not yet at this stage myself. Hopefully one day.

I hope to share an actual tutorial on the tying of the knots somewhere next week. It depends when the tripod I ordered arrives...


saves9 said...

Can I ask what thickness of silk thread you use for making your braids. Is it best to use the twisted threads or the smoother, finer threads banded together?

Unknown said...

I would like to make a purse in the same colours as the one in ochre, burgundy and a mid blue colour, the one with the crest on it . Please could you tell me which of the devere colours you used?


Thank you

Isis said...

Dear Julia,

I made that purse before I started using DeVere silk, so sadly I cant give you the exact numbers.
I also no longer have the purse so I can't give you the closest colours of Devere either.

Good luck finding matching colours!


Isis said...

Dear Saves9, I mostly use 1200 Denier loose twist. For very fine braids a thinner thread may be required.

ASP846 said...

May I ask what book the photographs of the extant pieces are from? I would love to try to find a copy of it. Thank you!

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