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All my life I’ve had problems tying shoelaces such that they don’t come undone throughout the day or during a walk.  I can’t remember who taught me (probably my dad) and when (probably when I was not quite knee-high to a grasshopper) but my simple right-around-left followed by make-a-left-bow and take-the-right-around-and-back-through-the-loop followed by pull-tight always seemed to loosen and come undone at a most inconvenient moment.  Thus, I have had to resort to a supplementary knot of some description to lock the original bow.  I even have a special way of tying the laces of my walking boots to ensure they stay well seated on my feet while trudging the highways and byways.  It doesn’t do for long thick laces to come undone while out in the wilderness.

Recently, I bought a new pair of North Face walking shoes complete with bespoke laces.  I tried my usual trick of a regular bow followed by a second bow on top but, alas, the laces came undone.  I changed the laces thinking the North Face laces had an unusually low coefficient of dynamic friction (high slipperiness) but that didn’t work.  Still my knots came undone.  In desperation, I secured the original bow with two additional knots on top and that sort-of worked but, by now, my curiosity was piqued and I began to question why the original regular bow was always coming undone.

What I discovered astounded me.  I discovered that there is a right way and a wrong way of tying a bow.  I discovered also that there has been much research into bow-tying styles and that there is a weak and a strong version.  There is even an erudite paper written by Oliver O’Reilly, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society and titled, “The roles of impact and inertia in the failure of a shoelace knot.” I mean, Jeez, I would have loved to have had such a paper listed among my one hundred or so technical papers.

But, back to reality.  Apparently, it’s all about how you implement the take-the-right-around-and-back-through-the-loop action.  I naturally go clockwise as I wind the right lace around the base of the loop.  It turns out that this creates a weak bow and the forces resulting from the natural impact and forward motion of the foot as you walk will, eventually, cause the knot to come undone.  If you go anti-clockwise around the loop, you will create the strong version of the bow and, ipso facto, the bow stays tight.

Now, I’m an engineer by training and thus follow the scientific method, the last stage of which is to prove by repeatable experiments that the hypothesis of anti-clockwise wrap-around produces a strong knot and, whaddya know, it works!  For the last few days, I have been walking with strong knots and no reinforcing supplementary knots and the laces on my North Face walking shoes have remained tied and tight.  I am, to coin a phrase, blown away by this discovery.  It’s a little bit of a struggle to go against over seventy years of how to tie a bow knot but I’m getting there and the nice thing about all this is if I forget, my shoelaces become untied and provide a timely reminder to do it right next time.

(It occured to me that there is an alternative experiment to validate the technique: tie one shoe with a strong bow; the other with a weak bow, and then go on a long hike.  I haven’t done this but may do one day when I have nothing better to do.  If you, gentle reader, try it, please let me know the result.)

If you want to watch a video of how to tie a strong bow knot, here’s a good TED video explanation.

To use the modern vernacular, let’s give it up for the mechanical engineers!  And to pre-empt the next question, the answer is, “I don’t know, but I know a man who does.”  The question?  “Is it better to thread the laces in a straight-across (straight-lace) manner, or a criss-cross manner?”  Over to you.