Knots are wonderful.
Without knots, we couldn't tie our shoes, go fishing, hang a clothesline or hitch our horse outside a saloon.
But knots can be troublesome. Sometimes, we run into a knot that cannot be untied.
We consulted with two experts, Des Pawson and John Sherry, about this knotty problem. Pawson is a researcher, historian and author on the subject of knots and also runs a shop and The Museum of Knots and Sailors' Ropework in England (despawson.com). Sherry is the proprietor of NetKnots.com, a great website that explains and teaches how to tie knots for any occasion. Here's their advice.
Degree of difficulty: No getting around it. This may take patience. (And, eventually, a white flag and pair of scissors.)
Identifying the problem: "Untying knots, especially difficult knots that have been subject to load, is a common dilemma," Sherry said.
He pointed out that the smaller the rope, the more difficult it can be to untie a knot.
"For example, a knot in your shoelaces can be particularly troublesome, and a knot in string can be nearly impossible to untie," he said. "The problem with small-diameter rope (cordage) or flat, woven material like shoelaces is in getting a firm grip on the material to pull the knot apart. Larger material at least gives you the advantage of being able to grasp the various parts of the knot to do your work."
Untying a knot requires some slack and, adds Pawson: "The knot (becomes) just too tight for the person who is trying to untie to work any slack in."
Attacking the problem: So a smart approach would seem to be to work the knot loose. Pawson says to look at the knot and size up the problem, then "try and loosen it, perhaps by trying (to) push rather than pull ends or parts of the knot" — in other words, "try pushing some slack into the knot."
Work different parts of the knot until you find some movement: Squeeze it, twist it, work it to wriggle it and loosen it up.
"It is not an exact science and often you have to try several approaches," Sherry says.
Tools: If you can't get the knot to budge, you may have to resort to some sort of tool.
"The use of tools such as pliers, forceps or a screwdriver can certainly be helpful," Sherry said. "Care must be taken not to damage the rope, though."
For a small, tight knot, such as in a shoelace, try to work a small implement — a bamboo skewer, maybe — into the knot and try to create some movement.
"The goal, whether using a tool or just your fingers, is to push and pull various sides of the knot until you can get any portion of the knot to yield just a little," Sherry explained. "Once you get some movement anywhere in the knot, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Small movement should in turn make it possible to gain more ground using the same pushing and pulling motion. Eventually one part of the knot will open up and you are on your way to freeing the whole knot."
So is there such a thing as an un-tieable knot?
"In theory, no," Pawson says. "In practice, yes."