ISFA News, Volume 14, no. 2 (September, 2008)

ISFA Publishes Fourteenth Bulletin

Bulletin of the International String Figure Association, Vol. 14 (2007) went to press in May 2008 and was mailed to members in early August.

Bulletin 14 opened with a long-overdue tribute to mathematician Tom Storer, who for many years served as the ISFA’s master bibliographer. In addition to appreciating string figures at an analytical level, Dr. Storer had a profound spiritual respect for their ancient history and the native peoples who first created them. Excerpts from his vast string figure library will begin to appear on our web site in the not-too-distant future.

String figures recently gathered in Papua New Guinea were showcased in articles contributed by Philip Noble and David Titus. Of special note was a previously unpublished design having two long hanging loops that represent the tails of two birds of paradise. Instructions for making elastic/rubber band figures (from Papua New Guinea and the Philippines) were included in this issue as well — a first. Although clearly related to string figures, they are most certainly of recent origin (the rubber band was patented in 1845 by an Australian factory worker). Several Asian immigrants living in the US have informed me that rubber band figures were once quite popular in their countries (Taiwan and Vietnam) whereas string figures were not widely known. All were familiar with two of the designs described in Taylor’s Philippines article (‘Star’ and ‘Star within a Star’).

A rare and attractive two-person figure called ‘Spider Web’ was the highlight of yet another article by Sherman, Wirt, and Wirt on string games of the Navajo Indians (Arizona, USA). Although photographed on three separate occasions during the past 40 years, the figure’s method of construction has remained elusive. In an appendix Sherman offered a reconstructed method based on ‘Open the Gate’, a figure that is widely known on the reservation. Shortly after the article went to press Sherman learned that ‘Spider Web’ was not unique to the Navajo as previously thought, but had also been recorded among the Toba Indians of Bolivia (Balducci, 1981). Remarkably, the Toba name is the same (‘Spider’) and the method of construction matches Sherman’s reconstructed method exactly.

Will and Lillie Wirt’s article on string figures from Tabuaeran reintroduced readers to many of the fine Gilbertese designs first described by Harry and Honor Maude (1958). Ironically, the Wirts’ visit to Tabuaearan, an atoll belonging to Kiribati (formerly the ‘Gilbert Islands’), was mandatory rather than optional during their 7-day Hawaiian Islands cruise on the ‘Norwegian Wind’ in January 2006. According to federal regulations, ships of foreign registry that cruise between American ports (in this case several Hawaiian Islands) must include a stopover at a non-American port to avoid costly port charges. As a result their Honolulu-based ship spent a full day sailing 1100-miles south to Tabuaeran and back.

Shortly after their visit the Wirts wrote, “only 1500 people currently live on Tabuaeran but every few weeks in the winter season 1700 people from the cruise ship descend on them. Apparently the atoll was originally uninhabited but the present inhabitants were brought over from the Gilberts (mostly from Tarawa) to work in copra production. After wandering around the island a bit we spent most of our time trying to collect figures from the several hundred locals selling handicrafts. Most of the older people seemed to know at least a few figures.”

Sadly, it is no longer possible to visit Tabuaeran via cruise ship. Shortly after the Wirts completed their visit the ‘Norwegian Wind’ left the Norwegian fleet. The US-flagged ‘Pride of Aloha’ replaced it and continued to visit Tabuaeran, but in April 2008 service was cancelled.

Bulletin 14 closed with two highly original articles authored by New York based members: Joseph D’Antoni (“String Figures with Unusual Hand Extensions”) and Frank Oteri/James Murphy (“Texas Lone Star”). D’Antoni’s mastery of difficult techniques and his familiarity with the literature is self-evident in his article. Of special note were sections that taught readers how to modify the construction method of a given figure so that its final display requires a dramatic cross-arm and/or thrusting action. Murphy’s article explored why certain figures, despite apparent bilateral symmetry, require the maker to use their right (or left) index first when forming opening A — if the convention is not followed, an entirely different design results. The structural basis of this phenomenon was explored in an Appendix.

Bulletin of the International String Figure Association, Vol. 15 (2008) is currently being edited and illustrated. We anticipate a press run in May of 2009 followed by bulk mailing in June. A Table of Contents will be posted on our web site as soon as it is available.

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 9 new members. If all members from 2007 renew their memberships in 2008, we will have 186 members living in 17 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Judy McKinty, Glen Iris, Victoria, Australia; Robyn McKinzie, ACT, Australia; Mariko Aoki, Fujisawa-City, Kanagawa, Japan; Mariko Oumi, Yokohama-City, Kanagawa, Japan; Louis de Forcrand, Geneva, Switzerland; and Jörg Zastrow, Ovelgönne, Germany. In the US, our new members are: Keith Akana, Honolulu, Hawai’i; Carlen Tooley, Las Animas, Colorado; and Ken Starke, Secaucus, New Jersey. Your support is appreciated and vital to our survival!

Sigwald teaches Texas Tots

Librarian John Sigwald of Plainview, Texas, offers a week-long string figures workshop each summer for children age 8 and up. This year a large color photograph taken at the workshop appeared on the front page of the Plainview Daily Herald (Tuesday, June 3 issue). After the workshop Mr. Sigwald sent us the following report:

A week of string figures launches our annual “Texas Reading Club” series of activities, which occupies the entire month of June. This year more than 50 students participated. Former workshop participants (now high school students) served as tutors. They arrived an hour early for a crash course on how to make the figures that would be taught that day. Deciding which figures to teach each year is always difficult. I don’t really like to waste a whole day on ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ but we did anyway since we tend to revisit Position 1 and Opening A repeatedly during the week. ‘Many Stars’ on Tuesday went well. One of my older tutors introduced a thumbs-down extension (like ‘Jacob’s Ladder’) that most students found easier than the extension illustrated in Gryski’s book. On Wednesday we tackled ‘One Puppy’ and ‘Two Puppies’. The kids who mastered ‘One Puppy’ had no problem learning the double version. The plan was to do ‘The Swan’ on Thursday but even my tutors found it difficult so I substituted ‘Man Climbing a Tree’ and ‘Siberian House’ at the last minute. That near disaster didn’t portend well for the ‘Little Dog with Big Ears’ on Friday so we went with the tried-and-true ‘Japanese Butterfly’ and ‘Apache Door’. Afterwards I showed a couple of advanced students ‘Two Brown Bears’ from the Arctic String Figure Project.

Breanna Roden of Plainview, Texas, displaying ‘Cat’s Whiskers’, the half-way point of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. Photo by John Sigwald

I make string loops with nylon cord supplied by Pepperell Braiding Company in Pepperell, Massachusetts. A 700-yard spool of fluorescent yellow cord costs us $80. After cutting span-sized segments I melt and join the free ends using an old soldering gun with a flat blade. We have markers set up at the library circulation desk for kids (or adults) to measure their span length. We sell the loops for 50¢ each. At first we would just give the strings away but found that kids would lose them or simply not take care of them minus any money spent for true ownership. We always have “loaner” strings for kids who have forgotten their strings. Of course my helpers get their strings for free, as does any child who simply cannot afford to purchase one.

We always enjoy incorporating this wonderfully low-tech pastime into our eclectic summer offering which includes the county entomologist, a high school science teacher, a tuba and trombone player, a model train hobbyist, and a martial arts expert.

TV Commercial: Audi Engineers design Car using String Figures

In November 2007 the ISFA received the following e-mail message:

“My name is Toni Moreno and I am TV producer in a commercials production company (Agosto) based in Barcelona. I am actually working on a project for Audi A4 in which appear some string figures. The basic idea of the commercial is to show how different people (pretending to be Audi technicians) build different pieces of a car, using string figure technique and how they finally build an entire car. I have been doing some research in order to find out about experts and people that are experienced with string figures. I am trying to find out if you feel this is something that can be achieved: I don’t know if there are only certain shapes that can be made using string figure techniques or if we can invent our own figures.”

Storyboard sketch by commercial producer Toni Moreno of Audi engineers designing a car using string figures.

Shortly thereafter ISFA co-founder Philip Noble of Scotland offered to assist Mr. Moreno is his rather ambitious undertaking. The final product, an innovative and highly professional television commercial, began airing in various Spanish-speaking countries in January 2008. The full-length (90-sec) version is posted at the popular video-sharing web site known as YouTube:

In May 2008 Philip Noble sent us the following description of his challenging but invigorating collaboration with the Spanish production team:

It all began with a phone message on our answering machine. “Hallo Philip,” said a friendly voice, “This is Toni Moreno, from Barcelona State TV. We are wondering if you can help us with our project to make a car out of string.” Suitably intrigued I replied immediately, and within a couple of weeks found myself in Barcelona for the day to discuss the possibilities.

The project which the Audi design team had come up with was to design a car with string. (They may have been influenced by the famous architect Gaudi who used string loops to create some of his most famous designs but I have no confirmation of that as yet.) I was asked if string figures could represent parts of the new version of the Audi A4, and be made ‘realistic’ in such a way that people with performance skills such as dancers, puppeteers and magicians could easily learn them.

December came and went quickly for all our family as string covered more and more of the house. My younger son Stephen made short videos of some of the pieces on his mobile phone and we sent these on to Barcelona to see if they met requirements. The more we sent the more requests came back! Car parts such as the gear stick, wheel, steering wheel, wing mirror, door handle, front door, roof of car, front grill, headlights, dashboard detail, windscreen wipers…we attempted them all and slowly began to realize that the key thing was not to achieve a realistic version of the car but much more to concentrate on making something that resembled the piece but to do so with elegant and pleasingly simple movements. Only later did we learn that these little clips were being sent to the top creative team in Audi Spain for their approval!

The filming of the commercial took place in Prague in early January and after four days of cutting and editing it was released on all four channels in Spain and posted on various internet sites, including YouTube. The final effect is most pleasing even though those of you who are familiar with string games will see immediately that some of the models are wired and far too complex to have been held rigid by such a small number of points. We did try to make all the pieces out of string loops but found that the number of people required to hold the strings in some of the more complex modes such as the seat and the dashboard meant that it was impossible to properly film the final shape.

The London-based firm Asylum created models of several of the pieces by removing the central core of the string and replacing it with flexible wire. They also made wired and non-wired models of the entire car. A non-wired version was needed so that the model would collapse at the end of the commercial when the strings were released. So the project created a real challenge for us but a most satisfying outcome and a whole host of new friends.

Scene from Agosto’s commercial: Engineers extend a multiperson string figure of the new Audi A4. Twelve large color photos are posted at

Last updated August 21, 2010
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