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A tricolored trefoil knot.

In the mathematical field of knot theory, the tricolorability of a knot is the ability of a knot to be colored with three colors subject to certain rules. Tricolorability is an isotopy invariant, and hence can be used to distinguish between two different (non-isotopic) knots. In particular, since the unknot is not tricolorable, any tricolorable knot is necessarily nontrivial.

Rules of tricolorability[edit]

A knot is tricolorable if each strand of the knot diagram can be colored one of three colors, subject to the following rules:[1]

1. At least two colors must be used, and
2. At each crossing, the three incident strands are either all the same color or all different colors.

"The trefoil knot and trivial 2-link are tricolorable, but the unknot, Whitehead link, and figure-of eight knot are not. If the projection of a knot is tricolorable, then Reidemeister moves on the knot preserve tricolorability, so either every projection of a knot is tricolorable or none is."[1]


Here is an example of how to color a knot in accordance of the rules of tricolorability. By convention, knot theorists use the colors red, green, and blue.

Example of a tricolorable knot[edit]


The granny knot is tricolorable. In this coloring the three strands at every crossing have three different colors. Coloring one but not both of the trefoil knots all red would also give an admissible coloring. The true lover's knot is also tricolorable.[2]

Example of a non-tricolorable knot[edit]


The figure-eight knot is not tricolorable. In the figure shown, it has four strands, each pair of which either cross or abut each other (or sometimes both, as with the green and black strands). If three of the strands had the same color, there would only be two colors in the drawing, not possible for a tricoloring. Otherwise each of these four strands must have a distinct color, not possible with only three colors. Since tricolorability is a knot invariant, none of its other drawings can be tricolored either.

Isotopy invariant[edit]

Tricolorability is an isotopy invariant, which is a property of a knot or link that remains constant regardless of any ambient isotopy. This can be proven by examining Reidemeister moves. Since each Reidemeister move can be made without affecting tricolorability, tricolorability is an isotopy invariant.

Reidemeister Move I is tricolorable. Reidemeister Move II is tricolorable. Reidemeister Move III is tricolorable.
3coloring Reid2 example.png
ReidMoveIII fixed for wikipedia n-coloring page.png


Tricolorability is a weak knot invariant[clarification needed]. The composition of a tricolorable knot with another knot is always tricolorable. Any separable link with a tricolorable separable component is also tricolorable.

In torus knots[edit]

If the torus knot/link denoted by (m,n) is tricolorable, then so are (j*m,i*n) and (i*n,j*m) for any natural numbers i and j.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Weisstein, Eric W. (2010). CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics, Second Edition, p.3045. ISBN 9781420035223. quoted at Weisstein, Eric W., "Tricolorable", MathWorld. Accessed: May 5, 2013.
  2. ^ Bestvina, Mladen (February 2003). "Knots: a handout for mathcircles",

Further reading[edit]