Last week, I bought myself a decent pair of shoes. I liked them, but couldn’t keep them tied because the laces were unusually thick and inflexible. In search of a solution, I stumbled across "Ian’s Shoelace Site," a comprehensive and rather charming monument of shoelace study. It has step-by-step guides to every imaginable method for lacing and tying shoes, plus special tips, a marketplace, everything you could ever want to know about aglets, and even an app. I now cannot fathom a shoelace question Ian’s Site wouldn’t answer.
I found a knot that worked for me—Ian’s Secure Knot—but had to know more about how Ian Fieggen, a 50-year-old Melbourne fellow who describes himself as "just a friendly Aussie Guy trying to contribute to the internet" came to build what could be regarded as the sacred text of shoelaces.
Aside from being a shoelace expert who runs a comprehensive shoelace site, who are you and what do you do? How did you become a shoelace expert?
In real life I’m a computer graphics expert and web developer. My alter-ego is "Professor Shoelace." I only became a shoelace expert when I added my "Ian Knot," the world’s fastest shoelace knot, to what was then my hobby website and found that it really struck a chord. The humble shoelace obviously needed someone like me to champion their cause and show that they could be fun!
It’s kind of weird being considered a "shoelace expert." For most of their history, shoelaces have been one of the most trivial of all objects and the butt of countless jokes. During the great depression, those who were down on their luck would sell shoelaces on the street. Surely no one in their right mind would willingly associate themselves with shoelaces?
Your prowess for IT and computer graphics is evident in the cleanness and organization of the site, as well as the helpful step-by-step images for each knot. Is there overlap between your computer expertise and shoelace expertise? Do the sensibilities and skills that facilitate one also facilitate the other?
Creating the written instructions for any shoelace knot or shoe lacing method is very much like computer programming: a carefully phrased sequence of small, easy to swallow snippets of the whole process. Writing the "recipe," so to speak. There’s probably a big overlap between programming skills and shoelace skills (and cooking skills, for that matter).
Creating the diagrams for each step is quite different. From an early age, we become accustomed to learning from a two-dimensional medium (eg. paper, blackboard, computer screen) and translating to the three-dimensional world in which we live. It’s much more difficult to do the reverse: reducing a shoelace knot from a flowing sequence in 3D space and time down to a series of 2D diagrams.
Overall, I think it requires one to be able to think in reverse: deconstructing rather than constructing. Starting with the idea of teaching a “Shoelace Knot” and being able to reduce it all the way down to “Step 1 …”
Are you the world’s preeminent shoelace expert? Is there someone else you consider a mentor or superior shoelace authority?
I’m sure that those who actually manufacture shoelaces would know more about the technical aspects of the laces themselves than I do. That said, I’ve probably spent more time than anyone else on the practical aspects of shoelaces. After all, it’s how we actually use them that has more relevance to the average person.
Your site lists dozens of lacing variations and dozens more tying variations. What shoes are you currently wearing (or did you wear most recently), and how are they laced and tied?
Today I’m wearing some ankle-high boots laced with "Over Under Lacing." Generally I prefer functional lacing methods, but I’ll often step out with “Lattice Lacing” or the more decorative “Angled Checker Lacing."
I found your site while searching for ways to keep leather laces tight, and ended up employing "Ian’s Secure Knot," which has worked quite well. You have a couple proprietary knots listed. How did they come to be and what makes them effective?
My Ian Knot was originally developed because I was trying to tie a conventional shoelace knot symmetrically. It was only later that I discovered that it was also much faster—an unexpected but welcome side-effect.
Most of my other shoelace knots similarly came about from experimentation with alternative tying techniques. My “Mega Ian Knot" was an experiment in combining speed and security, but it kind of pushes the boundaries. I find it fascinating that a particular knot can be tied using more than one technique. I’m generally seeking the fastest, most efficient and hopefully symmetrical method.
Besides aesthetic symmetry, knots also have what I would call "functional symmetry." More effective contact and friction points within a knot means that it generally holds more securely. Tying evenly means you'll have a better result.
You warn regularly against “The Granny Knot." What is that and why is it to be avoided?
The “Granny Knot” is the ultimate example of asymmetry being a problem. The knot is both visually unbalanced (it sits crooked) and functionally unbalanced (it comes undone).
Without going into too much detail, the problem occurs when the two stages of tying a shoelace knot—“Starting Knot” and “Finishing Bow”—are not correctly balanced. Each stage twists the knot slightly. It’s important that the two stages be tied in opposite orientations—either “Left-over-Right” or “Right-over-Left”—to cancel out those twists and re-balance the finished knot.
People who are inadvertently tying Granny Knots are often surprised to discover that a correctly tied shoelace knot will usually stay secure all day long. They have become so accustomed to regularly re-tying their shoelaces that they consider it just another of life’s little annoyances. Learning to avoid the Granny Knot can be life changing.
At least until discovering your site, I’ve always tied my shoes using the “Two Loop” method (“Bunny Ears”). It’s the way I was taught. Friends have made fun of me for this over the years. Is there something inherently childish or incorrect about the “Two Loop”?
If tied correctly, the “Bunny Ears” technique forms a perfectly good knot. In fact, it’s the identical finished knot that results from either the standard “Bunny around the Tree” technique or my own “Ian Knot” technique.
Both children and adults alike get teased for using the Bunny Ears technique, not because it is ineffective but for the same reason that anyone gets teased for being in the minority. Were the majority of people using the “Bunny Ears” technique, those few that use the “Rabbit around the Tree” technique would likely be teased.
That said, the Bunny Ears knot is often tied incorrectly. Because the method of tying both the Starting Knot and Finishing Bow are so similar, it’s natural to use the same orientation for both. As mentioned earlier, this results in an un-balanced Granny Knot.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that people are discouraged from using the Bunny Ears knot? After all, shouldn’t we be encouraging everyone to adopt the Ian Knot?
How should one go about teaching a child to tie his or her shoes?
Before teaching anyone, child or otherwise, it helps for us to re-experience how difficult it is to learn an unfamiliar knot. Here’s an interesting exercise: Turn yourself into a pupil for a day. Try out one of my more challenging shoelace knots. Notice how tricky it is for your fingers to get all the bits of the shoelaces into the right positions? How hard it is to pull everything tight without either the loops or loose ends pulling through and the knot falling apart? If you did, you’re ready to relate to the uncertainty faced by your child pupil.
Next, get yourself out of auto-pilot. Over our lifetimes, we’ve perfected a flowing sequence of shoelace tying maneuvers. A child can’t follow anything more than the most basic movements. Even something as seemingly simple as “create a loop” actually involves both hands and several separate finger actions.
There’s a whole bunch of other tips, such as using soft, easy to grasp shoelaces, marking finger grip positions on the laces, practicing on a large shoe, etc. Above all, be patient, and don’t push past a certain level of frustration. If the child just can’t get it, try something else. Different techniques suit different learning styles. Try the standard method or the bunny ears method. And don’t be afraid to try my Ian Knot. Just because it looks tricky to you, remember that you’re used to your current knot. Many people have success with my Ian Knot because, after all, it has fewer sequential steps to memorize.
Above all, when the child eventually succeeds, watch out for the tell-tale crooked bow that signals a Granny Knot. The child should be taught to reverse either their Starting Knot or their Finishing Bow to ensure that they don’t spend half their lives re-tying their shoelaces.
When you’re out in the world, do you notice the way people’s shoes are tied? Do you ever stop to critique or compliment someone’s lace set-up?
In the past, when I spotted the crooked bow of a Granny Knot, I thought that the wearer would appreciate being told how to fix the problem. In practice, people often don’t take kindly to a stranger pointing out one of their failings. They are also generally skeptical of the supposed benefits to be gained by the simple solution. There were quiet, understanding nods, with many people saying that they were comfortable with their current technique, even if it wasn’t ideal. It was all strangely reminiscent of the reactions to someone at their front door trying to promote a different religion.
People’s lacing methods often catch my eye, and on those occasions that I have engaged them in conversation, more often than not they learned from my website. It’s pretty cool!
How do you feel about Velcro? Sandals?
A simple shoelace is very clever at evenly distributing the tension throughout the whole closure of the shoe. To achieve that with Velcro requires multiple straps. A shoe with three or four straps would work quite well, though most of the speed advantage would be lost. As it is, I’ve rarely seen shoes with more than one or two Velcro straps.
And then there’s that “RRRRRRIP” sound…
Sandals are okay if it’s too hot for shoes, though we Aussies usually opt for thongs (flip-flops). Pity sandals don’t come with shoelaces.
Disregarding utility, is there a lace setup or a knot you consider most difficult or most exquisite?
I recently experimented with my Ian Knot and came up with a way of doing it one-handed. It was both difficult and exquisite. The difficulty of holding back and limiting myself to just one hand, particularly for someone who is so accustomed to the symmetry of using both. But there's exquisite joy in seeing the knot come together after all.
Hypothetically, if one were to tie a peer’s shoelaces together, what would be the most effective knot with which to accomplish the prank quickly and surreptitiously?
Hold two ends side by side like one double-thickness shoelace and tie a simple overhand knot. That would minimize pulling of the laces to reduce the chance of detection.
Warning! Do not do this stunt—dangerous—serious injury—blah blah blah. (*chuckle*).
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve encountered— a method, a lace, a shoe— in your years as a shoelace expert?
I never cease to be amazed by the astonishing variety of unusual shoelace gadgets, some of which I’ve seen in real life and many more that I’ve seen only in the patent archives. Most of these seem to focus on the problem of shoelaces coming undone, something that is more easily fixed by learning to tie correctly.
The most unusual thing I’ve encountered—and had to own—was a pair of Converse Shoelace Uppers. They’re sneakers whose uppers are made of a material woven out of shoelaces! Just the sort of sneakers you’d expect to be worn by Professor Shoelace.