ISFA News, Volume 10, no. 1 (March, 2004)

Tenth Bulletin Update

In the March issue of our newsletter we normally celebrate the publication of last year’s Bulletin of the International String Figure Association, but this year we must report that the 2003 issue is still being edited. Most of the articles we summarized in the September newsletter are nearly complete, but in each case there are two or three essential items that must be addressed before the article is ready to print (for example, a missing photo, an unverified fact, an untested method of construction, a flawed illustration, a pending "letter of permission to reprint material" — the list seems endless!). Needless to say, the editors will be OVERJOYED when everything falls into place. I’m sure most members will agree that a quality product is worth waiting for.

In the meantime, enjoy the March issue of String Figure Magazine, a special issue devoted to Nauruan finishing techniques. In the past, the Magazine illustrators have avoided tackling intricate Micronesian figures because they typically require a thin string — which is very difficult to trace if the photograph is small. But this time the photographer was able to alter the lighting to generate the required string-crossing shadows, and enlarge the resulting photos so that the thin strings were at least 2 mm wide. As a result, the illustrator was able to trace the photo and still reduce it to the required column-width size. Additional Nauruan classics will appear in the September issue, along with more hints on how to successfully extend these glorious figures.

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 17 new members. In addition, one previous member rejoined. So far 154 of last year’s members have renewed their memberships. If everyone renews, we will have 250 members living in 23 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Katharina Dysli-Muff, Zollbrück, Switzerland; David Stoffer, Höchst, Vorarlberg, Austria; and Karen Madigan, Old Bar, New South Wales, Australia. From Canada we welcome Brenna Swinamer, Windsor, Nova Scotia; and Susan Spyker, Black Creek, British Columbia. Our new US members include Julie Figgins, Toledo, Illinois; Leonard Fox, Charleston, South Carolina, Fang You, New York, New York; Rebekah Smith, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Heidi Peterson, Los Angeles, California; Ester Lopez, Edinburg, Texas; Fred Mindlin, Watsonville, California; David Tate, St. Louis, Missouri; Adrienne Grossman, Tuscon, Arizona; Jeanne Larsen, Anchorage, Alaska; Kim Johnson, Hudson, Wisconsin, and Walter Connelly, Seattle, Washington. Rejoining us is long time patron David McDaniel, The Dalles, Oregon. We look forward to entertaining you for years to come!

ISFA Conference in 2004?

Organizing a gathering of ISFA members is an enormous undertaking, far beyond the capabilities of our meager volunteer staff. Last year several members indicated that they would be interested in attending a conference in St. Louis (to commemorate the centennial of Jayne’s string figure work at the 1904 World’s Exposition) or in Montreal (to coincide with the 4th World Festival of Traditional Games and Sports. But so far, no clear plan of action has emerged.

As a compromise, several members of our editorial staff (Will Wirt, Joseph D’Antoni, and Mark Sherman) have decided to hold a “business meeting” in Montreal during the Traditional Games Festival, which begins July 30th and ends August 8th. Since ISFA business is not likely to consume much time, we will probably spend most of our time sharing figures, exchanging literature, site-seeing, dining out, attending key festival events, and gathering figures from festival participants if the opportunity arises (participants from over 70 countries are expected to attend). The editors are also eager to meet Lothar Walschik (a.k.a ABOINUDI) and his traveling band of stringers from Germany. In 2000, ABOINUDI and his string troupe performed at the 3rd World Festival held in Hanover, and were very well received (see the March 2001 issue of our newsletter posted at for photos and details). Festival organizers have invited them to perform again this year.

Although no formal conference has been planned, all ISFA members are invited to meet the editors in Montreal. Festival events will take place in Montreal’s Parc Jean Drapeau, which is located on a small island in the St. Lawrence River. Visit to view a map and learn more about the festival. The park is accessible by metro, bus, car, or bicycle. Several internet-based travel agencies (Travelocity, Expedia) are currently offering a variety of flight/hotel packages that seem reasonably priced. Lothar and his band of stringers will be staying in dormitories at McGill University in downtown Montreal.

If the timing and the price are right for you, send a letter or e-mail message to the ISFA office expressing your interest (addresses are given on page 1). Be sure to indicate which days you would be able to attend (I suspect that most of us will not be able to spend an entire week there).

Proofreaders and Method Testers Needed for Old Bulletin Series

Bulletin of String Figures Association, published by Nippon Ayatori Kyokai (the Japanese String Figure Association), was the first scholarly journal devoted entirely to string figures. The series, edited by Hiroshi Noguchi and Philip Noble, was published between 1978 and 1993. It was succeeded by Bulletin of the International String Figure Association (1994-present). A complete set of the former series consists of 19 volumes (909 pages) plus a 2-volume supplement (410 pages) by mathematician Thomas Storer. Since fewer than 100 copies of each issue were printed, the supply of back issues was exhausted soon after the series ended in 1993.

Since then, ISFA Press has been selling unbound photocopies to new members for US$56 plus postage ($12 to $32, depending on destination). Given the high cost, many new members have chosen not to purchase a set, which is rather sad since the old series is a valuable resource and vastly entertaining body of work. For this reason, ISFA Press has long dreamed of digitizing the old series so that a full set could be distributed on CDROM or over the Internet at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, digitizing the entire series is a daunting task that requires hours of tedious scanning and proofreading — something our current volunteer staff simply can not undertake given its current workload.

Recently, however, computer savvy ISFA member John Kean has volunteered to tackle the project. After scanning each page, John plans to convert the digitized information into a standardized format that virtually any computer can read and print once free software is installed. The format, developed by Abode, is known as Portable Document Format. During the past decade PDF has become the industry standard for distributing forms, manuals, catalogues, and scientific articles, largely because the resulting files preserve the exact layout of the original printed page.

Converting scanned documents into PDF files is not trivial. The initial scanning event captures an exact image of each page, much like a camera or photocopy machine, but the resulting digital files are huge and difficult to squeeze onto a single CDROM or diskette. Therefore, the digitized pages are usually processed using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. OCR software is able to distinguish between illustrations and text. Text is automatically converted into strings of characters that consume far less space. Once converted, the text can be edited with a word processing program if changes are necessary. Illustrations are converted into one of several compressed image file formats (jpg, gif, or png), and embedded within the document when the PDF file is created.

Unfortunately, OCR software isn’t 100% accurate. Depending on the quality of the scanned original, the software is only able to convert 95-99% of the words it finds into editable text. The remaining words are either misspelled, or contain unwanted numbers and symbols in place of letters (str&ng f+gur2s). The error rate is even higher if the lines of text in the scanned image are not level.

As a result, every word created by OCR software must be proofread to ensure that no conversion mistakes have been introduced. Text editing programs like Microsoft Word facilitate the task by underlining misspelled words, but they fail to highlight words that are real but incorrect (strong fixtures instead of string figures). Because of this, John Kean is desperately seeking proofreaders to help him eliminate technical errors. If you would like to volunteer, please send him an e-mail message at

Surprisingly, the ability to edit the scanned has raised an unexpected ethical issue: Should we correct the unavoidable mistakes and ambiguities found in the original string figure instructions? Probably we should, since distributing a flawed product is undesirable. Is it possible for one individual to identify every mistake and/or ambiguity in a set of printed instructions? Never! For this reason, John Kean is also desperately seeking instruction testers to help him eliminate conceptual errors. If you would like to help John test the methods, or have already done so and have written corrections in the margins of your personal copies, please send John an e-mail message confirming your participation.

New “World Culture” Booklets and Note Cards

Storyteller David Titus is best known for his three highly professional instructional string figure videos. Dave chose video as a teaching medium because it appeals to children and captures hand motions far better than print. But as Dave himself admits, videos are widely considered to be “less permanent” than books, and far less likely to be remembered (or available) 20 years from now. Books, on the other hand, still command respect and remain popular despite recent advances in multimedia technology.

Native American String Figures, published by WRDSMTH Productions, Lawton, Oklahoma, is Dave’s first attempt to distribute instructions in printed form. The 32-page booklet, which sells for US $5.99, features step-by-step instructions and illustrations for making 11 simple string figures. Most are figures obtained from Navajo or Apache informants. However, the booklet also includes a figure obtained from a Kwakiutl, a Kiowa, an Osage, and a Hawaiian informant. Some of the figures and tricks in the booklet are actually known worldwide, but seem to be especially popular among Native Americans.

Although all of the string figures featured in Native American String Figures have appeared elsewhere in print, the presentation offered here provides new insight. For example, step-by-step illustrations are offered for several figures that have not been illustrated previously in this fashion. Furthermore, the author reports alternative names he gathered for several familiar figures, allowing readers to appreciate old favorites from a different perspective. But most important of all, the author presents the figures in a format that is appealing to children.

The booklet is kid-friendly for several reasons. First, the format is large (11" by 13"). As a result the book lays flat when opened, allowing both hands to work with string while instructions are being read. Second, the print is large and the paragraphs are short, often no more than a sentence or two. Third, technical terms are avoided, and the verbs are simple (put, take, pick up, share, drop). Fourth, each page includes plenty of white space to ensure that the young reader is not overwhelmed by detail. Cultural notes are brief but illuminating.

Without doubt the illustrations are the most impressive feature of this booklet. Graphic artist Donna S. Moore-LeMaster, a college student at Cameron University, entices the reader with beautifully shaded pen and ink drawings of string on the hands. Rather than using arrows to indicate what the maker must do to advance to the next stage, the artist shows the hands in mid-action. Oftentimes the illustrations show one hand completing the action while the other is just beginning it, a technique utilized by Helen Betts in illustrating Caroline Furness Jayne’s classic book. But most enticing of all is the method the artist has chosen for conveying what each string figure design represents. Rather than placing clip art next to the finished pattern, the artist has layered transparent artwork directly on top of the figure. Thus we find a tom-tom superimposed on the finished pattern of the Navajo Drum, a buckskin tent printed on top of the strings of the Apache Teepee, and an eye peering at us through the center diamond of the Winking Eye.

Donna Moore-LeMaster’s depiction of the ‘Navajo Drum’

And to help the reader identify with the original makers of each figure, the author has included photographs of Native American children proudly displaying their finished patterns.

Native American String Figures is actually the first volume in a newly launched World Culture Series. Future installments will be devoted to string figures from Africa, the Arctic, and South America. Once completed, the series will serve as an excellent resource for social studies teachers looking for an interesting way to enliven their lessons.

If you like the illustrations in Titus’s latest booklets, you will love his new Note Cards. Dave is selling a set of 15 cards with envelopes for US $4.99. Currently, two sets are available: a set with Navajo Drum, Kiowa Star, or Apache Teepee from Native American String Figures, and a set that features Heart, a Native Alaskan Figure from Dave’s forthcoming booklet called Arctic String Figures.

To order your copy of Dave Titus’s new booklet, or a set of his note cards, visit his web site at If you don’t have internet access you can order by phone. His toll free number within the US is 800-357-9854. Outside the US call 580-357-9854.

Last updated December 8, 2004
Return to ISFA Home Page.