Three dogs

Zoomorphic interweaved dogs, inspired by the great work of George Bain. Created using traditional media: pencils and inkpen, with tracing paper to duplicate the dogs.

Pink key pattern

In his book Celtic Art, Methods of Construction, George Bain describes how to draw key patterns like this. In his diagrams he always uses square graph paper turned diagonally. But this is drawn without turning the paper through 45 degrees. This is so it can be used as a knitting chart.

The geometric designs can be easily made as knitting stitches, provided a fine gauge yarn is used. For thicker yarns, like double knitting, such a pattern is best worked out on rectangular graph paper. This is because knitting stitches are actually wider than they are high. On very small stitches this is barely noticeable. But the larger the stitches the more the pattern will be distorted if it is created on ordinary graph paper.

Bain wanted to encourage his pupils to create their own versions of insular art designs and apply them to different objects. Knitting was one of his own ideas. He hoped such developments would lead to a revival of Celtic art in Scotland.

Interlace knitting chart

Bain tried to reproduce a curved interlace design in this knitting chart on squared paper. Close up, it’s hard to see the blocks as interlaced strands. But from a distance, or when knitted with a thin enough wool, the pattern emerges.

Creating this design, he probably starts with two rows of equally spaced dots. Then, he breaks and joins the lines between them. This creates the interlacing strands. Bain describes this at the left of the second row in illustration 10 of his Elementary Knotwork booklet. The design can extend into infinity from both ends of the paper.

Bain made this chart for Peggy MacDonald when he lived in Drumnadrochit, after retiring from teaching. He encouraged local people to make use of Celtic art in modern craftsmanship. Whether Peggy used this chart to knit a border or all-over design is not known. However, there is a photograph of some of his students wearing knitwear that was made using his charts.

Interlaced man and beasts

Bird, serpent, beast and man fill a small square on a page in the Book of Kells, created over 1200 years ago. Bain made this large detailed drawing so his students could see the skill of the original scribe. He even shows the original size of the drawing so that the amount of enlargement is clear. It looks as if it is about 20 times that in the manuscript. The monk who created this complex image did so without the use of a magnifying glass or artificial light. It was too dangerous to use candlelight in a scriptorium. 

The scribe used interlacing to connect the figure to the entwined creatures in the design. He also interlaced the man’s long golden hair, with a strand wrapping around his waist like a belt. But this isn’t just art. The beast makes the letter C, the man forms the letter I. They are part of the Latin words IN PRINCIPIO (‘in the beginning’), the opening words of St John’s Gospel. Grappling with the beast represents the Christian message that good will overcome evil.

Bain’s notes around the artwork show that he wanted his art students to understand its intricate craftsmanship. He encouraged them to think for themselves and share ideas as to the meanings of the images.

See: The Book of Kells, TCD MS58, folio 292r, Trinity College Dublin (detail centre left)

A key pattern scarf

George Bain designed this scarf pattern in August 1948 for Mr MacDonald-Taylor in Dorset.  He shows different colours just to make the chart easy to read. Nevertheless, the shades he’s chosen would make a lovely combination for a scarf.

The notes are fascinating. The groups 1:8:1 and 2:16:2 relate to the formulae used to lay out the key patttern design. His book Celtic Art, Methods of Construction has a chapter showing how various types of key pattern are made. There, he uses formulae similar to these.

Bain’s notes on the chart mention that it  has been designed around a repeating block of 20 by 20 spaces. He’s added a border of 4 spaces. The use of the word ‘spaces’ rather than stitches suggests that this might not be a knitting chart. Perhaps the scarf was to be woven?

Sutton Hoo belt buckle

In this drawing Bain is exploring the use of knotwork on an iconic Anglo-Saxon gold belt buckle. He is focussing on the two opposing snakes that fill the loop of the buckle. The craftsman needed their tails to end by the buckle. Bain shows that the repetitive pattern of their bodies had to be altered to fit into the available space. 

Bain explored the use of single strand, never-ending knotwork when writing Celtic Art, Methods of Construction. He studied continuous borders in illuminated gospel books and other sources. And Bain saw that the design on the Sutton Hoo buckle loop included similar knotwork techniques. The loops and twists repeat time and time again. So, in the corner of this drawing, Bain shows exactly how to create a single continuous knotwork strand. It’s based on the principle of an odd number of bends along one of the panel edges.

This buckle fuses elements from early medieval Irish, Pictish, Northumbrian, Anglian and other cultures. Bain was fascinated by such parallels between various ancient art forms. And it’s clear that he very much appreciated that this Celtic ‘insular’ art of the British Isles is special.

Lots of interlacing

Bain has drawn six different interlace designs of varying complexity on this poster. He is illustrating a few of the ways that single strands can be laid out. He then complicates matters by adding extra lines of interlace.

The note refers to how Bain thought interlace was drawn, as shown on a poster that we’ve named Single Strand Interlace. There, he uses the interlace on a mosaic from Verulamium (St Albans) as his source. He notes that if the number of loops along each edge of a square or rectangle are the same, then single strand interlace is not possible. But Bain then complicates things by drawing the red single strand interlace pattern that contradicts this.

George Bain’s published work on knotwork borders includes interlace designs from a wide range of sources. They’re not just from Roman Britain. They appear in the illuminated pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Book of Kells and other early medieval manuscripts. They are also found as ancient embroidered designs from Africa, Persia and Turkey.

Single strand interlace

Bain draws this mosaic from St Albans to show a very simple interlace border from Roman Britain. His drawing to the left shows how to ensure the border has only a single, continuous, interlaced strand. This is the method also used by the Picts.

The diagram shows the spacing used in the mosaic in his outer diagram. This is perfect as it only uses one strand. He contrasts it with what happens if all sides are spaced at 14 units. His inner drawing shows that it results in four strands.

Bain speculates that the Romano-British mosaic designer was interested in a secure enclosure for the lion. The Picts had very different reasons for using the single strand design. They applied it on Christian monuments and in Christian manuscripts to symbolise eternity. 

Creating interlace

The use of a single, continuous line or strand in Pictish interlace and knotwork was of great interest to George Bain. He saw it as symbolic of Eternity. Bain was keen to stress this by showing the main methods used to achieve it.

In this poster he shows how interlace can be drawn with equal or unequal numbers of edge ‘turns’. Equal numbers produce a specific size of panel or border. Bain shows this in his drawing of part of a mosaic at Chedworth Roman villa, in England. It has 5 turns along both short edges. An unequal number of turns makes an infinite length of panel or border interlace. Bain draws this next to the Chedworth panel. The top edge has 6 turns but the bottom only has 5.

Bain used reference books to study interlaced panels and borders on Roman mosaics in England and abroad. Roman mosaics were designed long before Pictish use of the design. It is not clear from this drawing if the example of a mistake at Itchen Abbas refers to the original pavement. Perhaps the error is in the drawing of it in the Quennell book that he references. In any event in his own re-drawing Bain resolves the mistake.