A string figure
is a design
formed by manipulating string
on, around, and using one's fingers
or sometimes between the fingers of multiple people. String figures may also involve the use of the mouth, wrist, and feet. They may consist of singular images or be created and altered as a game
, known as a string game
, or as part of a story
involving various figures made in sequence. String figures have also been used for divination
, such as to predict the sex of an unborn child.
The most popular and well-known string game appears to be cat's cradle. String figures, which are well distributed throughout the world, include Jacob's Ladder (Osage Diamonds, Fishnet), Cup and Saucer (Sake Glass, Coffee Cup) and Tree Hole (The Moon Gone Dark, Sun).
String figures were widely studied by anthropologists from the 1880s through around 1900, as they were used in attempts to trace the origin and developments of cultures. String figures, once thought to have proven monogenesis, appear to have arisen independently as an entertainment pastime in many societies. Many figures were collected and described from south-east Asia, Japan, South America, West Indies, Pacific Islanders, Inuit and other Native Americans. Figures have also been collected in Europe and Africa. One of the major works on the subject is String Figures and How to Make Them.djvu, by Caroline Furness Jayne.
The Greek physician Heraklas produced the earliest known written description of a string figure in his first century treatise on surgical knots and slings. This work was preserved by republication in Oribasius' fourth century Medical Collections. The figure is described as a sling to set and bind a broken jaw, with the chin being placed in the center of the figure and the four loops tied near the top of the head. Called the Plinthios Brokhos, the resulting figure has been identified by multiple sources as the figure known to Aboriginal Australians as "The Sun Clouded Over". The Inuit are purported to possess a string figure representing the extinct Wooly Mammoth
According to Canadian librarian and author of numerous string figure figure books Camilla Gryski, "We don't know when people first started playing with string, or which primitive [sic] people invented this ancient art. We do know that all primitive societies had and used string--for hunting, fishing, and weaving--and that string figures have been collected from native peoples all over the world."
A great deal of additional information on string figures, on-going efforts to collect them worldwide, their often unique methods of construction, and newly invented figures are available in the publications of the International String Figure Association (ISFA).
In string figure literature there are many phrases often used, however there may be some variation with the fingers, loops, and strings indicated in different ways. A loop is the strings that go around the back of a finger, multiple fingers, or another body part such as the wrist. Some authors name the strings, fingers and their loops (near middle finger string, right index finger, pinky loop, for example), while others number them (3n, R1, 5 loop). One of the first methods of recording figures and sets of terminology was "A Method of Recording String Figures and Tricks" by W. H. R. Rivers and A. C. Haddon.
Below are some common moves, openings, and extensions.
- Murray Opening/Index Opening: Grasp the loop with your middle, ring, and little fingers so that there is a couple inches of string between them. Put these fingers together so there is a circle made by the overlapping strings. Insert your index finger from your far side into the circle, then rotate the index finger upwards, circling towards you.
- Position 1: Put the untwisted loop on your thumb and little fingers.
- Opening A and Japanese Opening: To do Opening A, first do Position 1. Then make the right index finger pick up the string on the left hand going between the thumb and the little finger. Finally, make the left index finger go between both strings of right index finger, and pick up the string going from the right thumb to little finger. The Japanese Opening is almost the same except you pick up the strings with your middle fingers, not index fingers.
- Caroline Extension: You do this when there is one or more loops on the thumb. Lift the instructed string up in the nook of your index finger, lift the string up, then pinch the string together with your index finger and thumb. This requires a lot of practice to do properly, so don't get discouraged if you fail at first.
- Navaho leap or "navahoing": When there are two loops on a figure, you can do this move. You basically just move the lower loop over the upper loop and release it from the finger.
- Bulletin of the International String Figure Association
- Caroline Furness Jayne (1906), String Figures and How to Make Them.djvu, ISBN 0-486-20152-X
- : An exhaustive study of this material culture
- Anne Akers Johnson, String games from around the world, Klutz 1996
- : A book for beginners
- Kathleen Haddon, String games for beginners, Heffer 1974
- : 28 figures, 40 pages
- Camilla Gryski, Cat's cradle, owl's eyes, 1987, William Morrow & Co Library
- : A book for beginners
- Many stars and more string games, William Morrow & Co Library 1985, ISBN 0-688-05792-6
- : A book for beginners
- Super string games, William Morrow & Co Library 1996, ISBN 0-688-15040-3
- : A book for advanced
- Fascinating String Figures, International String Figure Association 1999, Dover, ISBN 0-486-40400-5
- Julia P. Averkieva with Mark A. Sherman (contributor), Kwakiutl string figures, Anthropological papers of the American Museum of History, Vol. 711992, University of Washington Press, ISBN 0-7748-0432-7
- : 199 pages
- Joost Elffers and Michael Schuyt, Cat's Cradles and Other String Figures, Penguin books 1979. ISBN 0-14-005201-1 (Viking Press, 1980, paperback).
- : 207 pages, a book for beginners and advanced, English translation of German, features photographs
- Anne Pellowski, Story vine, Macmillan Publishing Compagny 1984, ISBN 0-02-044690-X
- : 116 pages - String stories