ISFA News, Volume 8, no. 1 (March, 2002)

ISFA Publishes Eighth Bulletin

For the first time in our organization’s short history the amount of material submitted for publication in our annual Bulletin far exceeded the allotted space. Unfortunately this minor detail was not evident until two weeks before the November 1 target press date (an accurate page count can only be made once all the illustrations are finished). As a result, the publication of several outstanding articles had to be postponed and the remaining material reworked to fit the allotted space. However, we are happy to announce that all 336-pages of volume 8 went to press on March 18. Please join me in thanking Joseph D’Antoni, Will Wirt, Tetsuo Sato, Marcia Gaynor, and all authors for proofreading the articles and returning corrections on extremely short notice. Assuming no delays with the printing, the books should be ready to mail by late April. The table of contents can be viewed at

Articles which are being held for the 2002 issue include: (1) a tribute to Canadian author Camilla Gryski; Axel Reichert’s recently assembled collection of figures and tricks from Mali, Nigeria, and Mauretania (gathered at EXPO 2000); Will Wirt and Mark Sherman’s second look at String Games of the Navajo (“Supplemental Notes and Additional Figures”); Paulo A. Escudeiro’s article describing how Portuguese children play Cat’s Cradle (their version includes several asymmetric patterns never before reported); Tetsuo Sato’s multi-loop version of Oteri’s ‘Towers of Hanoi’; and Kazuo Kamiya’s series of ‘Seagull’ variations. In addition to these articles, the 2002 Bulletin will include new figures from Indians of Canada, Brazil, and more from the infamous and remarkably prolific New York clan (Murphy, Ornstein, Oteri, and D’Antoni). And this time, every effort will be made to finish the issue before the end of the year!

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 20 new members. If all of last year’s members renew their memberships this year, we will have 250 members residing in 23 countries. But so far, only 135 former members have renewed for 2002.

Our new overseas members are: Jean-Pierre Husquinet, Liège, Belgium; Anja Hindenburg, Bremen, Germany; Inge Ehrlicher, Detmold, Germany, R. Kevin Seckel, Cecis, Latvia, and Yuriko Okazaki, Tokyo, Japan. From Canada we welcome Betty Knight of Brisco, British Columbia. In the United States, our new members include: Steve Johnston, Tucson, Arizona; Sally Crandall, Columbus, Ohio; Dianne Phillips, Childress, Texas; Eric Press, Los Feliz, California; Jo Sharp Ryden, Franklin, Tennessee; Deborah Winkler, Richland, Washington; Josh Rappaport, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Maraquelle Windsong; Hotevilla, Arizona; Peter Kohlenberg, Alameda, California; Michele Justement, Hoover, Alabama; Alan Youngblood, Boulder, Colorado; Clay R. Miller, Columbia, Tennessee; Leslie McElderry, Fairhope, Alabama; and John Trautman, St. Louis Park, Minnesota. We are happy to welcome you, and hope our publications bring you much joy.

2002 Membership Dues

Membership renewal forms for 2002 were mailed in mid-February. In late 2001 the ISFA enrolled its 250th member, thus reaching a goal set in 1993. As a result membership dues now cover 75% of our printing and mailing expenses - a major achievement! The remaining 25% is donated by a handful of generous members who adore string figures and cannot imagine life without our publications.

Although expenses continue to rise, and a hefty 7% postage increase is slated for June of 2002, we have chosen not to raise dues for the 10th consecutive year. Again we are asking for US $25 from North American members and US $35 from members residing elsewhere. As a not-for-profit organization we never want economic hardship to be a deciding factor in whether or not a string enthusiast joins the ISFA. Instead, we will continue to rely on the generosity of members, and hope that we continue to recruit new members at a steady rate. Therefore, members who submit an extra $25 or recruit a new member will be graciously acknowledged in our September newsletter as a String Figure Angel. Incidentally, in 2001 the ISFA spent $4200 to print our Bulletin, $2530 to print our Magazine, and $257 to print our Newsletter. The cost of mailing these items amounted to $2200.

Is It Time to Go Digital?

Within the past 3 years more and more publishers of academic journals have gone digital - they now distribute their articles in electronic form over the internet. As a result the information is accessible to a much wider audience. The file format they have chosen is called pdf (portable document format). This platform-independent format has emerged as the industry standard because the layout of all content is perfectly preserved (as if someone had photographed the page), and the viewing program (Adobe Acrobat) is free! Furthermore, publishers can easily include full-color photos and text in their articles without increasing their expenses. Once the file is downloaded, readers may either view the document on their monitor, burn it onto a CD, or print it using an inexpensive color inkjet printer (models sell for as low as $100!). It is also possible to search the article for keywords, or translate it into a language other than English (assuming you have translation software). Librarians love the new format since they don’t have to devote precious shelf space to titles that only appeal to a very small audience.

By eliminating the print version, the ISFA would save thousands of dollars in printing and mailing expenses. Dues could be substantially reduced or perhaps even eliminated. The drawings in our Magazine could be replaced with full-color photos that are more attractive and less time consuming to prepare (our web-based Arctic String Figure Project is a good example of what could be achieved). Our Bulletin and Newsletter could likewise feature color photos.

But going digital raises several questions: Would eliminating the print version alienate members who don’t own or can’t afford a computer or high-speed internet access? Would lack of a print version tarnish our reputation by implying that our publications are not worth the cost of printing and mailing them? And what about the shelf-life of a digital document? If readers fail to print a hardcopy upon downloading the file, will they still be able to ten years from now when technology has changed and the file and viewing program are obsolete? Perhaps the only answer is to offer both a printed version and an electronic version. But this, unfortunately, would cost us more money rather than less. If you have an opinion on this topic we would love to hear from you!

World’s Largest Cat’s Cradle

Clay Ammon of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, recently submitted this news item:

With 395 feet of twine and 21 volunteers, attendees of the Harvest Time Festival at Shadyside Free Methodist Church in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, attempted a “World’s Largest Cat’s Cradle” game. At 3 PM on October 27, 2001, 10 of the 21 volunteers formed the starting figure (the cradle), which measured 12 feet by 61 feet. Pastor James Reed and local contractor David Hoover served as official observers. Additional volunteers helped make three successful transitions, including one back to the original figure. Amazingly no knots were encountered. Other transitions were possible, but near-freezing temperatures and gusty winds discouraged additional efforts. Both the International String Figure Association and Guinness World Records were notified of the potential world record. Guinness requested additional information, which is currently being supplied. ISFA director Mark Sherman commented that he wasn’t aware of any existing record in this category, but he applauded our efforts nonetheless.

The organizers saw the world record attempt as a demonstration of what can be accomplished when friends, relatives and even strangers work together. Participants were: Sharon Henry, Ken Hinkle, Beverly Hinkle, Kayleen Bair, Myla Norris, Chuck Haupt, Nick Mansberger, Justin Reed, Jesse Ammon, Jonathan Ammon, Thomas Buttner, Gerald Rinehart, Charles R. Benson, Erin Ammon, Grace Hoover, Orville Ammon, Rebecca Ammon, Clay Ammon, Rita M. Hoover, Wanda Haupt, and Janice Reed. While this may not be a “normal” church activity, we certainly had fun despite the cold temperatures.

In Memoriam

Within the past year three prominent string figure enthusiasts died of old age. It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Honor Maude (1905-2001), world’s foremost authority on Pacific Island string figures; Sir Raymond Firth (1901-2002), legendary Pacific anthropologist and collector of Tikopian and Solomon Island string figures, and George Bennet (1926-2001), author of the “Arrow Code” article in our 1999 Bulletin. The eulogy read at Honor Maude’s funeral can be found in our 2001 Bulletin (obituaries appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times). Sir Raymond Firth’s obituary appeared in the March 14 edition of the New York Times (online version at The following obituary for George Bennet was written by his wife Jane and submitted by his son Adrian.

George was born in London on March 12, 1926. He was educated at Heatherdown Preparatory School Ascot, and Radley College, Abingdon. He won an “exhibition” to Corpus Christi College Cambridge. After leaving university he taught physics for 19 years at Clifton College, Bristol, a large “public” school for boys aged 13 to 19. George soon became Head of the Physics Department with five other masters to organise. During this time he wrote physics text books which were used in almost all schools in Britain and abroad, up to University level.

George also loved music, and was a good pianist. He organised the School’s public performances of masses and oratorios in Bristol Cathedral. These were performed once a year, using a large choir and orchestra of boys and well known soloists. On school holidays he took groups of boys sailing on the Norfolk Broads. In 1957 he married Jane, and they subsequently had two sons and a daughter.

In the late 1960s George felt called to the priesthood and entered theological college for one year. He was ordained in 1969 to the Church of England, and served in parishes in Dorset and later Norfolk. He retired in 1991. In 1994 he and Jane entered the Roman Catholic Church. He was ordained Priest in 1997.

George first became interested in string figures when he accidentally discovered a book on them in the school library, at age 15. He went on to become competent and increasingly interested all his life. He developed an Arrow Code for recording his finds, which was eventually published in the ISFA Bulletin (Vol. 6, 1999).

George suffered from a progressive illness for several years, and in 2000 became too ill to carry on. George died on July 4th 2001.

Forthcoming Books

In July of last year Richard Darsie received an offer from a publisher to do a book based on his award-winning web site ( Richard promptly selected several dozen figures from his on-line collection and shot new photos showing the figures extended on the hands. Chapter titles include First Figures, Series, Two-Person Figures, Catches and Tricks, 3D Figures, and Some Special Challenges.

Last May Belinda Holbrook signed a contract with Linworth Publishing Company to write a book that celebrates stories told with string figures. Linworth publishes two journals and books of interest to teachers and school librarians. Since then she’s been scouring the literature for string stories and rewriting the construction methods using her own words. The illustrations will consist of digital photos edited by a young computer graphics artist who has volunteered his services.

A revised and expanded version of Honor Maude’s “The String Figures of Nauru Island” went to press December 11. The second edition, published by the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, opens with a note from a Nauruan about the clan that still makes string figures, pictures of some children actually making figures, and a Foreword by Mark Sherman. The book ends with a hefty Appendix describing how to make all the “unsolved” Nauruan figures in Jayne’s book and the Garsia figures in Maude’s first edition. During the Fall of 2001 ISFA editors worked closely with the publisher to finalize the computerized drawings. Greatly improved methods for making three of the unsolved figures (Garsia 14, 15, and 18) were added at the last minute thanks to some outstanding “reverse engineering” efforts by John Kean, Yukio Shishido, Joseph D’Antoni, and Mark Sherman. The most noteworthy reconstruction is that of Garsia 18 (‘Hermit Crab’). Despite the simplicity of its final pattern, this figure has proven to be one of the most difficult to reconstruct using authentic Nauruan techniques. However, everything changed recently when John Kean developed a much improved version. His insight inspired other members of the reconstruction team to reinvestigate this intriguing figure. As a result, we now have six plausible methods for making Garsia 18! Look for these in a future issue of our Bulletin.

Garsia 18 ‘Hermit Crab’ (drawing by Yukio Shishido)

If you enjoyed Michael Taylor’s first book (“Pull the Other One…String Games and Stories”), be sure to buy a copy of the sequel (“Now You See It...String Games and Stories, Book 2”). The 128-page book is currently being offered in Europe by the publisher ( and In the United States publication is scheduled for May of 2002 according to information posted on the web site.

On the Road

In July 2001 Will and Lillie Wirt traveled to Kotzebue, Alaska, a town located on the Bering Strait. This is the region in which G. B. Gordon collected figures way back in 1906. Kotzebue was fascinating but disappointing with respect to string figures. The Wirts interviewed dozens of Inupiat elders. The elders would often reply, “Yes, I remember seeing those when I was little” and then they would show the Wirt’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’. Many elders and children also made ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, ‘Broom’, ‘Mouse’, and several common tricks. However, while passing through Anchorage the Wirts met a young Yupik fellow who knew over 40 traditional string figures which he learned from his father and grandmother. Will is currently helping him prepare an article for our Bulletin.

In October of 2001 Will and Lillie Wirt visited northwest China in search of string figures. The area is home to many ethnic minorities, including many Muslims. Their initial plan to travel close to the Afghan border was cancelled as bombing commenced. Most of the figures they saw were repeats of figures gathered earlier in the Yunnan Province and Tibet (see Will’s article in the 1998 Bulletin). Everyone knew Cat’s Cradle, which was a real nuisance since they had to play it hundreds of times in order to get to individual figures. However, they did obtain a few new ones (at an estimated cost of about $2500 per figure!).

In January of 2002 the Wirts, accompanied by Mark Sherman, returned to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona for a fifth time to finish their survey work. This time they gathered figures in the north and west parts of the reservation (including Tuba City and remote Navajo Mountain). Although many of the figures they gathered were seen previously, oftentimes these figures were given different names, or their method of manufacture was modified to create a new figure.

While in Arizona Sherman and the Wirts also made initial inquiries on the Hopi Reservation, where they gave free demonstrations at two elementary schools. Some informants were able match drawings of Navajo string figures with Hopi string figure titles listed in a recently published dictionary, but most were unable to make the figures they recognized. This is not surprising given the fact that the Hopi tribe is much smaller than the Navajo tribe, whose reservation completely surrounds theirs. But despite initial difficulties, a total of 19 Hopi figures were gathered, most being variations of figures gathered previously among the Navajo.

During the last day of their visit the team spent an informative and entertaining evening gathering figures at a laundry mat in Gallup, New Mexico, frequented by Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi Indians. They also made initial inquiries on the Zuni Reservation just outside Gallup. Like the Hopi, the Zuni are Pueblo Indians. After much effort, the team successfully gathered a handful of Zuni figures. Not surprisingly, many are closely related to Hopi figures. Look for these in a future edition of our Bulletin.

In October and November of 2001 storyteller and stringer David Titus spent five weeks in the Baltic countries. He also made a short stop in Finland and Germany. Dave took 6,000 strings with him and returned with 0. He presented 64 programs to various churches, schools, youth groups, prisons, orphanages, and refugee centers. According to Dave, strings are definitely a universal language. At the prisons he was allowed to teach figures but had to collect the strings at the end of the session. A staff member promised to do more with them later. Dave did not learn any new figures but there were many places where someone would take the string and make a few known figures. The most popular included ‘Four Diamonds’, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, and several string tricks. If you would like to read more about Dave’s Baltic adventures and view pictures, request a copy of his “String Ministries” newsletter by sending an e-mail message to

In late March of 2002 Dave Titus traveled to Barrow, Alaska, where he visited all the schools in the North Slope School District. He was hired by the Bilingual/Multicultural Department to invigorate communication between the elders and children by encouraging them to share string figures and stories. He also visited Kaktovik in the Yukon, Nuiqsat on the Colville River, and Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea, and several other locations, most of which were visited by Diamond Jenness between 1915-1918 as he assembled his classic collection of Eskimo figures. While there, Dave was interviewed by the local National Public Radio affiliate and filmed by the local cable company. As the Wirts learned in Kotzebue, the elders apparently don’t remember a lot of figures, but Dave witnessed at least a dozen. He was also quite surprised to see several Navajo figures being made by the local school children until he learned that their father is Navajo! Readers are invited to search the archives of our e-mail discussion group at for further details.

Eric Lee of St. David, Arizona, has been visiting the Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico, monthly since November. He is slowly developing friendships. The Seri were nearly exterminated by the Spanish in the 19th century. They numbered less than 140 in the 1920s. They now number 600, but many are of mixed blood. Recently he began collecting string figures from one elderly man, who unfortunately doesn’t show much interest in them. Most of his comments are in Seri, so it’s hard to ascertain the name of each figure. So far Eric has posted two Seri figures to our e-mail discussion group: one is a variation of the Navajo ‘Bird’s Nest’ while the other is a variation of the Navajo ‘Twin Stars’ (see our 2000 Bulletin for illustrations).

Other Newsworthy Items

One never knows when a lost string figure manuscript will suddenly resurface! In January Yukio Shishido and Tetsuo Sato reported that the lost papers of Japanese string figure enthusiast Yasushi Ishida’s had been discovered by his grandson living in Tokyo.

The ISFA first learned of Yasushi Ishida after one of his manuscripts was discovered among the Haddon Papers at Cambridge University in England. Back in the early 1930s, Ishida sent Haddon a manuscript describing a symbolic code for recording string figure instructions. Ishida also sent several letters to string figure author James Hornell in which he mentions collecting string figures in China, Japan, and Manchuria. For many years the ultimate fate of Ishida’s personal papers has remained a mystery. Ishida’s grandson contacted us after visiting the Japanese version of the ISFA web site, which Shishido and Sato maintain. The contents of Ishida’s papers and notebooks are currently being evaluated. Stay tuned for further developments.

Last month Yukio Shishido of Kyoto, Japan, helped Ms. Eico Takahashi, an independent writer, prepare and edit an article about the ISFA web site for Achara, a monthly magazine for young adults. The magazine presents information about the internet and has a circulation of 200,000. Unfortunately the editors of the magazine misquoted and severely cut much of the information Takahashi and Shishido provided them, and led readers to believe that string figures are nothing more than child’s play. But as they say in show business, bad publicity is better than no publicity at all! To rectify the matter, Yukio Shishido has posted their original article on the Japanese version of the ISFA web site.

Throughout 2001 several prominent and innovative string figure enthusiasts living in New York City have been meeting on a regular basis to analyze figures and invent new ones. The participants have included James Murphy, Frank J. Oteri, Joseph Ornstein, and Joseph D’Antoni. All have published articles in our Bulletin. Portions of their lively and often-controversial sessions have been recorded on videotape for absentee group members to enjoy. Several new Bulletin articles are sure to emerge from their discussions.

Recently many new outstanding string figure web sites have emerged. Keeping track of them all is a major chore, but ISFA member Michael Garofalo has done an admirable job. Be sure to visit his web site and view his annotated list of links. You’ll find his home page at:

One item you may not find is the recently launched Navajo String Games web site sponsored by the San Juan School District based in Blanding, Utah. The site’s authors were thrilled with the recently published Bulletin article by Wirt, Sherman, and Mitchell, and offered to develop the material into an interactive web site with embedded video clips. When the new site is fully functional a link will be posted at the ISFA web site (

Last updated May 28, 2003
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