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Geometric Design: Knots and Weaves

This post is part of a series called Geometric Design for Beginners.
Geometric Design: Working With Circles
Geometric Design: Two Variations on an Islamic Tiling Pattern
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Interlaced strapwork, meaning knots and woven motifs, is the next level of complexity in Islamic geometric patterns, and was originally inspired by the abundance of Roman-era knotwork in the Levant, in architecture, mosaics, window grills and handicrafts. 

This strapwork is sometimes referred to as girih, from the Persian word گره‎ for "knot". Yet such patterns are hardly exclusive to or even typical of Islamic art, and they abound in the arts of other cultures, most famously Celtic art.

Strapwork is not a different kind of construction, but an extra step that can be added to pretty much any pattern, either finite or infinite, to turn the lines into shapes, which can then be coloured, made to look like interlaced bands, and/or treated with any degree of ornamentation.

Marble mosaics
Interlaced effect in marble mosaics from Mamluk Egypt.
Ceiling of Nasr el Molk mosque
Ceiling of Nasr el Molk mosque showing elaborately treated bands.
Intricate knot in Chinese Quran
Intricate knot in a Chinese Qur'an manuscript.

Today we will learn two very different-looking knots made on exactly the same grid, and then convert a basic pattern into an interlaced one.

Seven-Circle Knot (Rose-Shaped)

Step 1

Start by drawing a circle divided into six (cf. Working With 6 and 12). The parts of the outside circles that are within the central circle can be omitted in order to make the construction clearer.

Rose-shaped knot step 1

Step 2

Reduce the compass opening slightly, and return the dry point to the centre of one of the circles to draw a smaller circle inside it, again leaving out whatever crosses over into the central circle.

Rose-shaped knot step 2a

Do this with the other five circles.

Rose-shaped knot step 2b

Step 3

Now we'll create the central knot. Place the point of the compass on one of the outermost intersection points, and set the opening as shown here. Draw the arc contained within the central circle. It links up smoothly with two arcs on the outside of it.

Rose-shaped knot step 3a

Repeat this around the circle, keeping the same compass opening.

Rose-shaped knot step 3b
Rose-shaped knot step 3c

Step 4

Now, returning to the first point in step 3, increase the compass opening to match the measurement shown. Be very careful not to reduce it, an easy mistake to make since we did just that in step 2!

Rose-shaped knot step 4a

Repeat around the circle.

Rose-shaped knot step 4b
Rose-shaped knot step 4c

Step 5

The groundwork is ready, and all that's left to do is to ink the final design. Here's a way to pick out the lines to achieve the original knotted motif.

Rose-shaped knot step 5a

Another possibility is to only ink the outer lines, for a cloisonné effect. Each enclosed area can then be coloured separately.

Rose-shaped knot step 5b
Rose-shaped knot coloured

Seven-Circle Knot (in Circle)

Step 1

Draw a circle divided into six, again leaving out the arcs that cross into the central circle. Work large, because we'll need to draw very small circles later on.

Knot in circle step  1

Step 2

Reduce the compass opening slightly, and return the dry point to the centre of one of the circles to draw a smaller circle inside it. So far the steps are the same as in the previous knot.

Knot in circle step 2a

Repeat around the circle.

Knot in circle step 2b

Step 3

Using the points on its circumference, draw an extended diameter of the central circle—we only really need the section that is not dotted, at the top here, to define a few points with precision. Place the dry point where this line cuts the outer circle, and set the opening to where it cuts the inner one. Draw a circle.

Knot in circle step 3

Step 4

Now, return the compass to the original centre, set the opening to the centre of the small circle, and draw the large circle that circumscribes (surrounds) the whole construction.

Knot in circle step 4

Step 5

Open the compass to reach the point defined by the small circle cutting the extended diameter, and draw another large circle. Notice what happened: using this small circle as measurement allowed us to create an outer band that is the same width as the bands formed by the six circles.

Knot in circle step 5

Step 6

Use the following lines to mark intersections on the outer circles. We also need just one point on the central circle. As usual, the dotted lines can be left out for clarity, but feel free to draw them if you find them helpful.

Knot in circle step 6

Step 7

Place the dry point on the intersection shown here, and set the opening to that point we just marked on the central circle. Draw the part of the circle that is within the largest circle.

Knot in circle step 7a

Repeat all around, keeping the same compass opening.

Knot in circle step 7b

Step 8

Return the compass to the opening of the small circle, but place the dry point as shown here and draw another small circle.

Knot in circle step 8

Step 9

Use this latter as a reference to change the compass opening and draw smaller circles inside the six we drew in step 7.

Knot in circle step 9a
Knot in circle step 9b

Step 10

Now set the dry point and compass opening as shown here. Make sure you catch the right points. Draw the arc contained in the central circle.

Knot in circle step 10a

Do this all around.

Knot in circle step 10b

Step 11

With the same centres as before, but with the opening below, draw another arc...

Knot in circle step 11a

... and repeat all around. This completes our groundwork.

Knot in circle step 11b

Step 12

Ink as follows for the full knotted effect. If you look carefully (and this is more visible when coloured), you can see that the central part is made of three slightly hourglass-shaped units that are interlaced together, and with the outer part that is a single unit looping over itself.

Knot in circle step 12a

A cloisonné-type of inking is also possible:

Knot in circle step 12b
Knot in circle coloured

Converting Flat Patterns Into Weaves 

The previous motif introduced the idea of using small circles to give width to the lines. This simple device is actually the key to turning any geometric pattern into strapwork, or at least to widening the outlines so that the space between the shapes becomes itself a shape, to be filled with anything from a plain colour to freehand arabesque. A simple construction can then lead to a highly ornamental and multi-layered final product.

Illuminated page by Ibn el-Bawwab
This elaborate illuminated page attributed to Ibn al-Bawwâb is built on the very basic construction shown on the right. The lines have been thickened, filled with patterns, and given outlines that were themselves turned into interweaving bands, while the spaces defined were entirely filled with arabesque or geometric patterns; finally the entire composition is framed in an elaborate plaited border.

Of course, this can take a certain amount of time, depending on the base pattern, but it is not difficult. To illustrate this conversion step, we'll revise a pattern we learned previously in our lesson on Working With 4 and 8.

Breath of the Compassionate (Woven Version)

Remember this pattern? Let's give it that extra level of detail.

Breath of the Compassionate pattern

Step 1

Start by drawing the full five-circle grid described step by step in Working With 4 and 8, including the horizontals and verticals which we added in the first two steps of the Breath of the Compassionate pattern. Make sure to use a hard pencil throughout and switch to something slightly softer for the lines that are darker here, as they are the ones we need from this point on.

Converting a flat pattern step 1

Step 2

Place your compass point on one of the outside intersections, and draw a tiny circle. The diameter of the circle determines the width of the bands, and the opening must be set to half that! A high quality compass is needed for this kind of detail work, but you can also find circular templates (among architecture supplies) for very small circles. Only bear in mind it is tricky to achieve real precision with them without some practice.

Converting a flat pattern step 2a

Draw similar circles centered on all the equivalent points around the pattern.

Converting a flat pattern step 2b

Step 3

Connect the points marked by these circles on the original grid, to produce new sets of diagonals. First from one angle...

Converting a flat pattern step 3a

... then the other.

Converting a flat pattern step 3b

The reason we placed our reference circles on the outer edge of the composition is that the more distant the two points we are connecting, the more accurate the result, as the line cannot deviate between them. If we try to extend it beyond the two points, on the other hand, we can't guarantee it won't deviate a little.

Step 4

Repeat the marking of circles (same diameter) on the intersections of the straight lines.

Converting a flat pattern step 4

Step 5

Connect the horizontals...

Converting a flat pattern step 5a

... then the verticals.

Converting a flat pattern step 5b

Step 6

You can now ink the pattern, either with a woven effect...

Converting a flat pattern step 6a

... or cloisonné.

Converting a flat pattern step 6b
Converted pattern coloured

Now that you're familiar with the technique, why not try to convert the following patterns?

From Working With 6 and 12:

Flat pattern 1

From Working with 5 and 10:

Flat pattern 2

We've now been introduced to a way of adding dimensionality and/or complexity to a pattern by turning them into strapwork. Next we will try our hand at some more complex, classic Islamic patterns.

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