Celtic Culture

In 300 BCE, the Celtic peoples were spread across Europe, from the British Isles to Turkey. Today only small pockets of Celtic spoken language remain; Ireland’s Gaelic is the most famous. But their geometric designs-- ”Celtic Knots”-- live on. Tooled leather is one place where you can see these patterns today.

The area where Celtic languages were once spoken is in light green, and the area where they are spoken today is in dark green.

Many of the earliest examples show vines or elongated animals in interlaced curves. One theory is that the early Celtic religion believed that nature’s spiritual power flowed along such paths. This shield (below), found in the Thames river in London, dates to about 200 BCE. Can you find the birds?

By 800 CE, the “interlace” style (sometimes called “Celtic Knots”) had been fully developed for use in handwritten Bibles. This was typically applied to the first letter of a title word as we see here an example below from the Kells Abbey in Ireland.

An ancient shield with celtic knot patterns, including influence from plants and animals.

Celtic knots were used to turn letters into an art form, helping to visualize the power of the words.

Celtic style briefly re-appeared during the Art Nouveau movement of the 1920s, but during the 1980s it exploded in popularity, appearing in jewelry, tattoos, and, of course, tooled leather.

Because the knots are continuous, and stamps are discrete, leather smiths use some clever tricks when working with Celtic designs. Take for example the most simple design, the Triquetra (Latin for “three corners”). Originally used by Pagan Celts, it was adopted by early Christian monks and renamed the “Trinity Knot”. In this image, we see how placing the stamped leather images at the right distance from each other gives the impression of linked circles.

Here is the triquetra in a different pattern, again stamped on leather.

Modern stamp making using metal stamps and algorithms to make complex (and awesome) patterns.

These knot patterns combine together to make more complex knot patterns, including hexagons.

This Celtic belt pattern (see below) looks so complicated. But it is really only two stamps, a knot and a joining bar:
Step 1: The basic knot is stamped.
Step 2: Just rotate the knot stamp 180 degrees, and move it over and up... Stamp again.
Step 3: Now apply the little joining bar, stamping twice.
Step 4: Iterate as many times as you need, until you reach the end of the belt.

As the Irish say in Gaelic, “éasca péasca” (easy-peasy).

A lot of patterns are meant to be infinite algorithms like this one, which is hard to do in person, but which computers do quite well.