adventures in knotting

August 22, 2006

By the mathematical reckoning of a pair of Cambridge theoretical physicists, there are 85 possible ways to tie a standard necktie, of which only 13 or so are deemed aesthetically viable. Most men know only one or two, which severely limits their options when facing the dizzying array of collar styles, tie thicknesses, and personal tastes. I wear a tie far more often than most men my age, and in doing so I have found that there is much to enjoy beyond the realm of the ordinary. It is therefore my privilege and also my pleasure to present a brief look at a few popular knots (some more so than others, mind you).

The four-in-hand is arguably the most basic of knots, made fashionable in the 19th century by the Four-in-Hand club of London and worn by millions of men the world over, particularly in America (it goes well with our ubiquitous oxford-style shirts). Simplicity is its virtue but also its limitation: the resulting knot is relatively small and asymmetrical, not always a good match with thinner ties. Chances are quite good that this is the knot that your father taught you (and indeed, the knot that you will teach your sons).

Next, consider the Windsor. A large–and, with thick ties, potentially enormous–knot named after the Duke of Windsor, though the Duke wore a four-in-hand with special ties designed to create larger knots, rather than the knot to which he lent his name. It requires a bit of practice to get right as there are a number of twists and turns–if you’ll pardon the pun–involved in its tying. The result is well worth it, though: a wonderfully grand triangle that tends to stick out rather prominently from the chest. As such, it is one of the most formal of all knots; personal tastes, however, rather than societal impositions, should dictate your usage of the Windsor (I, for instance, wear it almost without exception).

Moving on, the half-Windsor is a slightly less complicated version of the Windsor, removing a couple of steps and, consequently, a fair amount of bulk, while still retaining much of that knot’s shape and elegance. It is also less formal than the Windsor, which, combined with its visually pleasing triangular symmetry, makes it a compelling choice for everyday wear with all varieties of ties. It is also, arguably, more fashionable than the four-in-hand, though in the workplace such a trait is perhaps less important.

Finally, a word on ties in general: the thickness of the tie is a traditional indicator of quality, as is the feel of the silk (avoid roughness). Printed, geometrical designs may appear to be safe choices, but they are often cheap and mass-produced, not desirable qualities in one’s neckwear. Rather, choose ties whose patterns are made from various colors and textures of silk. Look for designer ties at discount prices at outlets such as Neiman Marcus’ Last Call and Saks 5th Avenue’s Off 5th if your traditional destinations fail you; you need not spend more than $30-$50 USD unless the tie is from a top-end label (Brioni, for example). Most of all, be sure that the tie is an expression of your own personal style. Bear that well in mind, and be not afraid; remember, ties are fun!

–D. S. W.


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