the ancient maritime tradition of twisting bits of string into puns....or was that punnets?
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Rocket Mass Heaters:
The best knots tend to be stable under load, easy to untie when slack, and leave the line undamaged (so it can be used again and again).
and two of our personal favorites, for practical amazement:
Ernie's #1 trick to learning any knot: practice. It's your hands that learn it, not your head. Start with one or two useful knots; practice them a lot. Once you've mastered those, move on and add more.
What Erica looks for in knots: "Over-Under-Over" (like Celtic knot art), and "Looping Through." Over-under-over tends to secure a knot, most reliable knots have this pattern somewhere in them. Looping through can turn a secure knot into a removable slip-knot, handy for many purposes. If you need both the secure and the slip functions, it's not hard to temporarily secure a slipped knot with a half-hitch (or a small stick).
In our opinion, the best knots are reliably stable under load, easy to untie when slack, and leave the line undamaged (so it can be used again and again without weak spots that may fail).
There are a few deliberate exceptions: for fixed gear, you may occasionally want a truly permanent knot that will be worn away in place, or that needs to be smaller than its removable counterpart. (Splices and whippings are often a better permanent choice if time allows.)
'Trick' knots that release under sudden load may in rare cases actually be safer (e.g. the Horseman's Knot allows a quick-release option in case the animal panics, but gives enough resistance to restrain a calm horse.)
Avoid knots that tend to slip or jam, and that weaken the rope by pinching or kinking. These are dangerous, annoying, and unsightly knots; you can't trust them, or the rope they've corrupted.