ISFA News, Volume 8, no. 2 (September, 2002)

Ninth Bulletin Preview

Articles for the 2002 Bulletin are currently being edited, illustrated, and formatted. The content is likely to exceed 350 pages. We anticipate a press run in mid-November. Mailing will occur in late December or early January.

The forthcoming issue will open with a tribute to Camilla Gryski, author of Cat’s Cradle, Owl’s Eyes plus two other string figure books. The bulk of the article consists of an interview conducted by Mark Sherman in April of 2001 at the author’s home in Toronto. Camilla recounts the colorful history of her three string figure books and provides a detailed account of her invigorating promotional tours across Canada and the Arctic. She also describes her current work as a therapeutic clown.

Professor Michael Pollock of Canada has submitted an article describing the many animal string figures he uses to embellish his zoology lectures. Nearly every vertebrate creature on the evolutionary ladder can be found in his list.

French storyteller Sam Cannarozzi Yada explores the cross-cultural connections between string figures, sand paintings, and language in a short essay. Cultures as diverse as the Navajo Indians of Arizona, the monks of Tibet, and the Melanesian islanders of Vanuatu are compared.

In “String Games of the Navajo, Part 2”, Mark Sherman and Will Wirt provide supplemental notes and additional figures gathered during the winter of 2001. The article includes 41 new games, plus a table that summarizes the prevalence of all games at 12 different locations on the reservation. The article also includes a detailed analysis of subtle differences in technique observed among 50 informants who were asked to perform figures from the standard Navajo repertoire. The analysis suggests that there is no single “correct” way to form many of the figures.

The showcase article of this year’s Bulletin is an impressive collection of string figures recently assembled by anthropology student Chang Whan among the Karajá Indians of Brazil. In addition to many beautiful photographs of her informants dressed in traditional garb, Chang Whan provides the reader with methods for making 28 of the 50 string figures she documented. She also provides their native names and discusses the role they play in Karajá culture.

Chang Whan’s article is followed by a short report by Luiz and Eunice de Paula describing string figures they gathered among the neighboring Tapirapé Indians in the mid-1980s. Their article does not include methods, but many of the figures they photographed were later obtained by Chang Whan from the Karajá. Native names for each figure are provided, and oftentimes they differ from the names assigned by the Karajá.

Soon after returning from the Navajo reservation in January, Will Wirt made several trips to Anchorage, Alaska, where he worked with David Nicolai, a young Yu’pik Eskimo who demonstrates string figures at the local culture center. During their meetings David taught Will how to make 41 of the 85 string figures his grandmother once knew. The collection is significant because it is one of the first to include methods for making figures once known to the native inhabitants of southern Alaska, whose culture and language is distinctly different from their neighbors to the north (the Inupiaq Eskimos).

ISFA member Axel Reichert was able to collect a few string figures at the African Pavilion during the EXPO that was held in Hannover, Germany in 2000. His informants were from Mali, Nigeria, and Mauretania.

Because of the forthcoming republication of Honor Maude’s “String Figures from Nauru Island”, there has been a lot of new interest in the so-called “unsolved” figures (those that appeared in the back of Jayne’s book and the Garsia figures in the first edition of Honor Maude’s book). Admittedly, some of our previous reconstructions were less than ideal. But not anymore thanks to John Kean from New Zealand. Dr. Kean came up with not one, but several highly innovative reconstructions for Garsia 18 (Aom, the Hermit Crab), and a remarkably straightforward reconstruction for Garsia 14/15, the two part series that ends with ‘Cantilever Jetty’. All employ authentic Nauruan techniques. In addition to reconstructions, his article includes a discussion of the criteria that one should apply when reconstructing string figures.

Joaquim Paulo Escudiero is an avid knotter who sells his handicrafts in Lisbon’s Castle Garden, but he also fancies string figures. Since Castle Garden is full of children at play, Escudiero asked them to show him how they play cat’s cradle. He was amazed to learn that the children frequently invent their own figures and give them clever names. His observations are reported in his forthcoming article.

In last year’s Bulletin James Murphy presented a charming figure called ‘Chopstick Heart’. As a seasoned “string figure engineer”, Murphy immediately sketched a pleasing variation of it and challenged readers to make it. Joseph D’Antoni accepted the challenge, but soon discovered that the figure is impossible to make. In his article he presents proof, and shows how to apply the same principles to other sketched figures.

New string figures are often invented by altering the methods used to make traditional string figures, most of which start with Opening A, the Navajo Opening, or the Murray Opening. It’s not easy to invent an entirely new opening. But Joe Ornstein of New York has done just that. His new opening is an upside-down version of Opening A, which he calls ‘Opening "’ or the ‘Antipodal Opening’. His article opens with a description of his new opening, and concludes with a series of net-like figures made from it.

For years New Yorkers Joe Ornstein, James Murphy, and Frank Oteri have been meeting to share and discuss string figures. Recently they’ve been joined by Joseph D’Antoni. Upon learning Ornstein’s ‘Opening "’, James Murphy quickly devised his own set of new figures, some of which include hearts embedded within. Murphy’s creations are presented in an article entitled “Fun with Ornstein’s Opening”.

Japanese string figure artist Kazuo Kamiya specializes in animal string figures. In his latest article he shows how to vary the traditional Inuit string figure known as ‘Seagull’ (known as ‘Airplane’ among the Navajo).

Bulletin editor Tetsuo Sato of Kumamoto, Japan, specializes in two-loop and multi-loop string figures. Oteri’s ‘Towers of Hanoi’, published in the 2000 Bulletin, immediately caught his eye and inspired him to create a multi-loop version which he describes in his new article. His creation is especially impressive when made with loops that differ in color.

This year’s Bulletin is sure to please! The editors wish to thank all authors in advance for their outstanding contributions.

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 19 new members. 37 of last year’s members failed to renew their memberships this year. As a result, we now have 224 members living in 22 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Kenjiro Otake, Saitama, Japan; Christina Bersebach, Wiebke Fleischmann, and Sascha Hansmann, all from Bremen, Germany; Tiaki Kondou, Nishinomiya City, Japan; and Jacques Laizier, Champigny sur Marne, France. From Canada we welcome Beverly Matson, Guelph, Ontario; and Robert McGuinness, West Vancouver, British Columbia. Our new US members include: Mario Triboletti, Egg Harbor, New Jersey; Nate Wetzel, Stevens Point, Wisconsin; Michelle Johnson, Salt Lake City, Utah; Allen Tans, Kalamazoo, Michigan; Merren Booth, Sterline, Virginia; Isaac Potts, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Frank E. Ferguson, Lexington, Massachusetts; David Nicolai, Anchorage, Alaska; Ruth Stotter, Tiburon, California; and Patricia Nunn, Frazee, Minnesota. Rejoining us is Kathryn Ballard, Cincinnati, Ohio. Thanks for supporting our preservation efforts!

String Figure Angels for 2002

In an ideal world membership in the ISFA would be free. Unfortunately the cost of printing and mailing our publications exceeds the financial resources of our volunteer staff. We therefore request $25 from members annually to partially offset our costs (plus $10 for overseas postage). For the balance we rely on the generosity of seasoned members who derive great joy from our publications. Although we greatly appreciate every extra dollar that members contribute, we like to acknowledge the generosity of large contributors by dubbing them String Figure Angels. By definition, an angel is someone who contributes at least $25 more than the requested amount, or someone who recruits a new member.Archangels are members who contribute $100 or more.

This year we wish to acknowledge the generosity of the following String Figure Angels: Jo Sharp Ryden, Carole Graham, Bob Grimes, Dean Abel, David Eisenberg, Henry Rishbeth, Alan Youngblood, Herman Lau, Ron Read, Mary Beth Anderson, Fred Alcantar, Belinda Holbrook, Fred Schreiber, Agnes Tomorrow, Dianne Phillips, Julie Hocking, Paul Power, Gelvin Stevenson, Cathy Traut-Hessom, Randy von Smith, Lois and Earl Stokes, Mike Mangan, Cathy Salika, John Sigwald, Mike Sloey, Deirdre Cheallaigh, Andrew Devalpine, Audrey Small, Pat Whale, Claire Miller, Richard Brudzynski, Marcia Gaynor, Yukio Shishido, Eugene Bowen, Jim Bosma, Ian Ferguson, Camilla Gryski, and Sally Abraham.

Our String Figure Archangels for 2002 are: James Murphy, Daniel McCarthy, Carey C.K. Smith, Joseph D’Antoni, David Parkinson, Frederick Dick, Udo Engelhardt, John Burnes, Will and Lillie Wirt, David McDaniel, Lothar Walschik, Tom Storer, William Lawrence, and Mark Sherman.

Because of your generosity we were able to continue publishing our unique Bulletin and ever-popular Magazine, both of which will continue to delight and amaze readers for years to come. Thank you!

Re: Is It Time to Go Digital?

In the last issue of our newsletter we asked members whether it’s time for the ISFA to start distributing their publications in electronic form over the internet, either in lieu of -- or in addition to -- printed hard copies. Several advantages were cited, including the ability to include full-color photos at little cost, the ability to search an article for keywords, or translate it into a language other than English using translation software, the ability to store the information in a compact format, the ability to substantially reduce or eliminate membership dues, and the ability to reach a wider audience. The disadvantages cited included: the risk of alienating members who lack a computer or high-speed internet access, the perceived lack of permanence that many digital documents still suffer from, and the inability to read the digital files in several years as file formats continue to change.

A total of 15 members responded to the question “is it time to go digital.” Granted, this is probably not a representative cross-section, but all 15 members were strongly opposed to going completely digital. Of the 15, 4 suggested that it might be wise to offer a digital version in addition to a printed version. We have therefore chosen to do just that. Over the next few years, ISFA press will convert Bulletin articles and Magazine issues into PDF files. Eventually patrons will be able to download them from our web site after paying for access, either by credit card or electronic check. However, we will continue to offer traditional printed copies to all members, provided they pay annual dues.

Navajo String Games Web Site Fully Functional

If you haven’t visited the Navajo String Games web site yet, please do so. It’s located at:

The site was launched earlier this year by Navajo Nation curriculum specialists employed by the San Juan School District in Utah. It’s an excellent example of how technology can help indigenous peoples preserve their culture. The bulk of the text is based on Wirt, Sherman, and Mitchell’s Bulletin article from volume 7 (2000), but the curriculum specialists have added notes and made minor corrections here and there. And most impressive of all are the downloadable video clips (Mark Sherman filmed by Will Wirt) which show how each string figure is made. Wouldn’t it be great if someday the ISFA web site could offer downloadable video clips of every string figure ever published?

Japanese Web Site Features New String Figures on a Monthly Basis

Joseph D’Antoni recently discovered a internet-based Japanese magazine that includes string figure illustrations and instructions on a monthly basis. The site is located at:

On the 15th of every month they add step-by-step illustrations for two new figures. Non-Japanese readers can easily follow the diagrams.

I would like to encourage our members to launch similar web sites of their own. Most internet service providers offer their clients free personal web pages and oftentimes free web site design software. Small web cams with sufficient resolution for screen images sell for as little as $39. Unleash your creativity by sharing your favorite string figures on-line! No good at writing instructions? Omit them and just use photos with arrows to show finger motions. Or, shoot a series of still images and use photo-editing software to make an animated gif “movie”.

New String Figure Books

Within the past six months four new string figure books were published. All are outstanding. A full review of each will appear in this year’s Bulletin. An expanded table of contents and information on how to purchase each book is given below.

He Whai: Old and New String Figures from Aotearoa New Zealand, by Briar O'Connor and Libby Patterson (2002). 92 pages. ISBN. 0-7900-0849-1 Published by Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, Berkenhead, Auckland, New Zealand. Price: NZ $29.95 (about US $14). Order from the publisher’s web site at:

For several years portions of this book were posted at Maureen Lander’s web site on Maori string figures. The book is divided into 16 sections. Section 1 is an introduction in which the authors state their reasons for writing the book. Section 2 is an historical overview of string figures in Aotearoa New Zealand. In section 3, the authors give detailed, illustrated instructions for making string from harakeke (native New Zealand flax). They also provide a list of taboos associated with the process. String figure nomenclature is illustrated in section 4. In sections 5-16, written instructions are given with step-by-step illustrations alongside the text. In section 5 the authors present two introductory figures: Cup and Saucer followed by Eiffel Tower. Section 6 shows how to make Wahine (Woman) from Andersen’s book (two methods). In section 7 Kopu (Venus), likewise from Andersen’s book, is illustrated, followed by Horned Ram’s Head, a variation invented by Patterson. Section 8 presents Takapau (Floor Mat), a.k.a. Jayne’s Ten Men plus a variation by O’Connor (Toroa, Albatross). Section 9 presents Kahukura (Red Admiral Butterfly) invented by Patterson. Section 10 illustrates Hapuku (a large fish) from Andersen, which becomes Wharepuni (Sleeping House) in section 11 and in section 12 Whare Whakairo (Carved Meeting House), a figure given to the authors in 1997. In section 13, Hapuku is transformed into Moko (Chin Tattoo) from Andersen. In section 14, Moko is transformed into Manawa (Heart) and in section 15 into Pere Pirirua (Double-Headed Arrow), both invented by O’Connor. In the final section, instructions are provided for making ‘the fire at which the heart of Nuku-Tau-Paroro was roasted’ from Andersen, followed by five variations, three of which were invented by the authors.

About the authors: Briar O’Connor (Nga Puhi) gained an MA (Hons) in Sociology at the University of Auckland. Here she incorporated her interest in Maori material culture into her research, which looked at how people make meaning of their lives with and through objects.

Libby Patterson DipFA (Hons) trained in sculpture at Ilam in Christchurch and has practiced many art forms since. Her interest in things Maori started in childhood and has directed her academic studies at the University of Auckland.

In 1997 Briar and Libby worked collaboratively, researching string figures as part of a course in Maori material culture at the University of Auckland, under the guidance of Maureen Lander. This book is a result of their wish to pass on knowledge recovered.

Fadenspiele sind mehr!: Fadenfiguren spielen und Geschichten erzählen (String games are more!: String figures to play and stories to tell), by Lothar Walschik (ABOINUDI). (2002) 136 pages. 270 illustrations (photos and drawings). ISBN 3-7800-5825-1. Spiral bound. Comes with a loop of string. Published by Kallmeyer, Seelze, Germany. Price: EUR 17,80 (about US$ 17) when ordered through the internet from

The book begins with a Foreword, followed by a section entitled “My Way into String Figures” in which the author describes how he was introduced to the hobby. This is followed by a two-page history of string figures and a section called “Who Plays?”, in which the author mentions the ethnic groups that make string figures. The introductory material ends with an illustrated nomenclature section. The remainder of the book is divided into two chapters. In the first chapter methods for making nearly two dozen string figures and several series are illustrated by excellent black and white photos. These include: Cup and Saucer series, The House of Nikolaus, The Pearl Necklace, The Lasso, The Candle Thief, The Train, Two Trains, The Castle, The Thumb Escape, The Witch’s House, The Moon over the Mountain, The Egg, The Dragon, The Sand Flea, The Bridge over the River, The Palace, The Sewing Machine, The Buttonhole, The Circus Tent, The Star, The Shooting Star, Two Fleas, and The Flea that Jumps from One Finger to Another. In the second chapter the figures from the first chapter are merged with original stories and poems. Several lines of the story are given first, followed by several lines of string figure instructions in alternating fashion. In this way the reader learns what to do with the hands as he methodically recites the story or poem. The stories are excellent, but written in German of course. The books ends with literature cited, acknowledgments, and a short biography of the author, similar to that found in the March 2001 issue of our newsletter.

The String Figures of Nauru Island, by Honor Maude with members of the International String Figure Association. Second edition, revised and expanded. (2001) 200 pages. ISBN 982-02-0148-9 (traditional binding); ISBN 982-02-0350-3 (spiral binding). Published jointly by the University of the South Pacific Centre in Nauru and the Institute of Pacific Studies in Suva, Fiji. Price: US$37.00. Order from the Institute of Pacific Studies web site at:

After 6 long years the second edition of Honor Maude’s classic Nauru book is finally available. In addition to the original Preface by Harry Maude and Introduction by Honor Maude, the second edition includes a Foreword by Mark Sherman and an update on current string figure activity on the island. The contents of the first three parts are identical to those of the first edition, except for corrections made to the instructions. In addition, all photographs were replaced with line drawings. In Part 1, figures known elsewhere are described. In Part 2, simpler Nauruan figures are given. And in Part 3, the highly-prized Nauruan classics are presented. Two short stories and reproductions of Garsia’s plates separate Part 3 from the newly written Part 4, in which members of the International String Figure Association present reconstructed methods for making all the Nauruan figures in the back of Jayne’s book and all the figures seen in Garsia’s plates. The book ends with a newly compiled glossary of Nauruan terms. No serious string figure enthusiast should be without this book!

String Stories: A Creative, Hands-On Approach for Engaging Children in Literature, by Belinda Holbrook. (2002) 288 pages. Published by Linworth Publishing, Worthington, Ohio. ISBN 1-58683-063-5. Available December 2002. Price: US $36.95 when ordered from the publisher’s web site at:

Introducing the only book in print devoted solely to telling string stories! Some of the stories are traditional ones that have been collected over the years. Some are adapted from old tales to become more interesting to current listeners and some use traditional string figures to tell new, contemporary stories. The book includes a brief history of string figures, instructions on how to read and follow string figure notation, tips for performing string stories, where to find more information about string figures, and tips for sharing and teaching string figures to children. Each of the 19 stories is accompanied by step-by-step illustrated instructions for making a total of 45 string figures. Many of the stories are from members of the ISFA. The story titles are:

Last updated May 28, 2003
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