ISFA News, Volume 1, no. 2 (December, 1995)

ISFA Publishes Second Bulletin

This year’s issue of Bulletin of the International String Figure Association is bigger and better than ever! Volume 2 (1995), a whopping 200 pages, features six articles, a video review, seven letters to the editor, and a new section entitled “Modern String Figures.” Of special note is Joseph D’Antoni’s article describing how to make the unsolved Nauruan string figures found in Jayne (pp. 367-370) and in Appendix II of Honor Maude’s book “The String Figures of Nauru Island.” Watching these elaborate figures spring to life after so many years of non-being is truly enchanting.

Due to a 67% increase in the cost of paper, this year’s printing and mailing costs will exceed $4100. The Bulletin is therefore distributed only to members submitting $25 annual dues. Members contributing articles receive additional copies free of charge.

Welcome New Members

Since the last issue of our newsletter, ISFA has acquired eleven new members. Please join me in welcoming Artis, Seattle, Washington; Jerzy Kocik, Carbondale, Illinois; Jeffrey Lipton, New York, New York; Rick Meyers, Portland, Oregon; Sally Murphy & Gordon Hester, Fremont, California; A.J. Oxton, Conway Centre, New Hampshire; Caz Taylor, San Francisco, California; Tandra White-Jennings, Lexington, Kentucky; Will Wirt, Port Angeles, Washington; Michael Pollock, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and Mel Scott, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.

Announcing Member Profiles

String figure enthusiasts are a diverse group of individuals with an equally diverse range of interest in the subject. Some are fascinated by the artistic side of string figures — the stories they tell, the personal interactions they foster. Others enjoy their scientific nature — the implications of their geographic distribution, the mathematical principles associated with each design.

Given the diversity of our group, Philip Noble has suggested we feature “member profiles” in future issues of ISFA News as a means of fostering communication. If you would like to participate, send us a letter describing (1) why you like string figures; (2) who introduced you to string figures; (3) the first string figure you learned how to make; (4) your favorite string figure (include a photo of yourself displaying it!); and (5) how string figures continue to enrich your life. Don’t be shy!

BISFA Reaches Seventh Continent

A copy of BISFA volume 1 was recently mailed to Mr. A.J. Oxton, an American stationed at the McMurdo military base in Antarctica! Reading BISFA.....what a great way to endure the long, dark, cold Antarctic winter! Incidentally, an article by Oxton entitled “Three String Figures from Easter Island” appears in this year’s issue. Remarkably, the photographs were taken with a digital camera and transmitted to our editorial office over the Internet — E-photos from the South Pole! Oxton has since left Antarctica, this time headed for Australia and India (he promises to take plenty of string). Oxton also writes that he once photographed a Boy Scout Troop making “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Apache Door” with a 200-foot loop of yellow nylon climbing rope against a green grass playing field (if located, the photos will be featured in a future issue of BISFA). Oxton has no permanent address, but you can write him via E-mail at or visit his homepage on the world-wide-web at:

Update on ISFA Publicity Campaign

Slowly but surely news of ISFA and our Bulletin is starting to appear in popular and academic literature throughout the world. Last Spring, promotional copies and/or brochures describing volume 1 were sent to the book review editors of over 100 periodicals. A self-addressed postcard was included for acknowledgment purposes. Sadly, most have not yet replied. However, the editors of the following periodicals did agree to mention our organization in a recent or forthcoming issue of their periodical: Come-All-Ye (a review journal of publications in the field of folklore, social history, and popular culture); Pacific Information Centre Newsletter, (Fiji); Kulele (a journal on music in the Pacific published by the National Research Institute of Papua New Guinea); Storytelling Magazine (Jonesborough, Tennessee); Juggler’s World Magazine (Davidson, North Carolina); Ethnos (Folkens Museum Etnografiska, Stockholm); Boletin AEREO (Instituto Panamericano de Geografia e Historia, Mexico City); L’Homme, revue française d’anthropologie (Paris, France), Folklore (London); Fiberarts (Ashville, North Carolina); Canberra Anthropology (Australian National University); Inuktitut (a cultural magazine of the Canadian Inuit, Ottawa); Museum Ethnographers Group Newsletter (Hull, England); Anthropological Quarterly (Washington, D.C.); Aeon, exploring the relationship between myth and science (Ames, Iowa); Nordic Institute of Folklore Newsletter (Turku, Finland); Folklore Forum (Bloomington, Indiana); Centre for South Pacific Studies Newsletter (University of New South Wales, Australia); Australian Aboriginal Studies (Canberra); Nueva Antropología (Mexico City).

A reporter from the Wall Street Journal (New York) recently interviewed several members of ISFA and is currently writing an article about us. However, there is no guarantee at this point that the article will appear in print (cross your fingers).

Anyone with additional ideas on how to better publicize ISFA is asked to submit them to the editor. String figure enthusiasts are everywhere — we simply need to let them know we exist!

String Figure Cartoons

For several years Audrey C. Small of Paradise, California, has been assembling a collection of cartoons and advertisements that feature string figures. Not surprisingly, many include cats (in reference to cat’s cradle). One cartoon entitled “Remedial Education Class for the Football Deprived” depicts a rather husky fellow staring intently at Opening A (guaranteed to offend any serious string figure enthusiast!). Opening A is also featured in an ad for a rock concert by the B-52’s! Copyright restrictions prevent us from reproducing them here. However, feel free to write Mrs. Small for more information, or to contribute to her collection. Her address is: 5228 Country Club Drive, Paradise, California, 95969.

On-line Collection of String Figures Receives Award

Point Communications Corporation, New York, recently rated Richard Darsie’s on-line collection of string figures (cleverly entitled “World-Wide Webs”) as being among the top 5% of all web sites on the Internet. The sole function of Point is to seek out and publicize noteworthy information on the World-Wide-Web. Each site is evaluated for content, presentation, and experience. Out of a possible 50 points, Darsie’s site received scores of 40, 34 and 36 in each of the three categories.

Darsie’s collection, the first of its kind to appear on the Internet, was recently revised and expanded. The figures are now subdivided into families based on similarities in their methods of construction. String figures belonging to the “Ten Men,” “Little Fishes” and “Many Stars” families are particularly impressive. Grouping the figures in this manner emphasizes their inter-relatedness, a feature which is often not apparent upon simple inspection of the final designs. Each description includes an illustration of the finished pattern and a complete method of construction. An introductory chapter presents a short history of string figures and describes the common openings.

If you want to visit Darsie’s website, you’ll need a personal computer with a modem, a “web browser” program, and access to the Internet. Internet access is now provided by a multitude of online service providers (check your phone book). In the United States, these include Compuserve, America Online, Prodigy, and Netcom. These companies also supply the web browser, often free of charge. Once you’ve established a connection, simply type the following at the URL prompt to access Darsie’s collection:

If you don’t have a computer, write Richard Darsie for a printed copy. His address is 2500 Lafayette, Davis, California, 95616.

Announcing the “Arctic String Figure Project”

Inuit (Eskimo) string figures are certainly among the most difficult figures to make from written descriptions. The figures are often asymmetric, requiring different moves on each hand. During their formation the hands often point away from you with fingers closed to the palm. This makes terms like “near,” “far,” “upper,” and “lower” difficult to interpret. Many also require the retrieval of strings from the center or sides of the design, a maneuver that is often difficult to describe in the absence of an illustration. To further complicate matters, many of the published accounts are either poorly written, full of errors, or written in French! As a result, most Inuit string figures are completely inaccessible to the beginner, and many elude even the most ardent string figure enthusiast. A major revision is long overdue.

ISFA therefore announces the “Arctic String Figure Project.” The term “Arctic” has been chosen since “Inuit” does not adequately describe many of the native inhabitants of Alaska or Siberia, and “Eskimo” is considered derogatory. The goal of the project is to rewrite the published descriptions, eliminating errors and providing illustrations of key intermediate stages as needed. Photos showing the final figure extended on the hands will also be generated since few of the published accounts provide them. The new instructions and illustrations will be published in our Bulletin over a three or four year period. Eventually, we hope to commit the figures to videotape, but this will certainly require outside funding.

Your participation in this undertaking is essential to its success. Over the years, many of us have worked out some, if not all, of the figures appearing in Jenness (1924), Gordon (1906), Paterson (1949), Victor (1940), and Mary-Rousselière (1969). Unfortunately, the fruits of our labor have never been compiled into a single, useful document. ISFA therefore invites you to submit your findings for publication. Submissions may be in the form of lists of errata, annotated photocopies of the original monographs, pencil sketches of key intermediate stages, or even amateur videos of the figures being made. Anyone submitting material will be listed as a co-author. Richard Darsie has offered to write the revised methods. His ability to describe complex maneuvers is impressive (visit his web site for a preview). Send your submissions to Mark Sherman, Editor, by April 1, 1996 if you wish to participate in this massive undertaking! We also need French to English translators. If you wish to volunteer your services, contact the editor beforehand in order to avoid needless duplication of our efforts.

String Figure Bibliography Revised and Expanded

Ten years ago Dr. Tom Storer, University of Michigan, revolutionized the field of string figure research by publishing his comprehensive String Figure Bibliography (Bulletin of String Figures Association, no. 12). Since then, Storer has managed to locate over 600 additional articles, books, and monographs that describe and/or mention string figures, all of which appear in the second edition of his bibliography. Unlike the first edition, all entries are now coded to indicate whether string figure illustrations and/or methods are present. ISFA Press is distributing this 100-page, spiral bound volume at cost (US $13.95). Orders will be accepted starting March 1, 1996.

Other News of Interest

Dr. Paulus Gerdes, Rector, Universidade Pedagógica and Chairman of the African Mathematical Union Commission on the History of Mathematics in Africa recently wrote to ISFA expressing interest in the role string figures once played in the development of math skills among Sub-Saharan Africans. The commission publishes a newsletter, available in English, French, and Arabic. For more information, write Dr. Gerdes at P.O. Box 3276, Maputo, Mozambique. FAX 258-1-422113.

ISFA member John Sigwald would like to purchase an original copy of Elffers & Schuyt’s “Cat’s Cradles and other String Figures.” (Penguin, New York, 1978). His address is: P.O. Box 1241, Plainview, TX, 79073-1241.

Anthropologist Georgia Lee writes that the next Tapati festival on Easter Island is scheduled for Jan. 26 though Feb. 4, 1996. The festival routinely features a string figure contest in which islanders attempt to weave local designs upon command. For tour information, contact Far Horizons Archaeological and Cultural Trips, Inc., P.O. Box 91900, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199-1900. Phone (800) 552-4575.

Several libraries have recommended that our Bulletin be dated the following year if we wish to publish in December. Rather than skip a year, the editors have chosen to gradually shift the publication date forward over the next few years. The 1996 issue will be published in October. We therefore ask that all manuscripts be submitted no later than July 1 in order to provide adequate time for proofreading, revisions, and page layout.

Richard Darsie recently encountered a reference to string figures in “Dawn Land,” a novel written by Native American writer Joseph Bruchac. On pages 131-132, the author mentions three string figures: “Sky Bear’s Cave,” “Fisherman’s Spear,” and “Turtle’s Lodge.” Bruchac is of the Abenaki tribe (New England).

ISFA recently acquired their own “domain name” on the World-Wide-Web. Our new URL is:

Our web site will undergo a major “facelift” in early 1996, including the debut of “String Figure Magazine,” an electronic magazine designed to appeal to beginners. Also included will be a cumulative index of our former series, Bulletin of String Figures Association, an index of the new series, an abridged bibliography, and a list of books in print.

Last updated October 15, 1996
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