String Theory
January 20, 2014 5:00 PM   Subscribe

In 1906, Caroline Furness Jayne wrote String Figures And How To Make Them - A Study Of Cat's Cradle In Many Lands [Google Books], probably the best-known study of string figures and string games.

String figures are commonly used to tell stories.
Alaska Native String Stories
Navajo String Games
A Boy And His Owl Gone Fishing

How to Do Cat's Cradle: Step-by-step pictures and instructions
String Figure Of The Month
Two Mountains and a Stream

The Survival, Origin and Mathematics of String Figures, with:
The Origin of String Figures
Where And How Did String FIgure Making Originate?
Why Is Jacob's Ladder So Widely Distributed? [Lacob's Ladder]
with modern string figures like Spinal Vertebrae and Footballer

The WWW Collection Of Favorite String Figures
The Main Collection, with an Introduction To Easy String Figures
Openings, Moves and Endings

While pictures and diagrams are useful, the best way to see string figures are on video.
How To Do Jacob's Ladder, Step-By-Step, With String
Cat's Cradle
Fox and Whale

String games and string figures have been documented the world over.
String Games In Australia
The Torres Strait String Figures In The British Museum
Gilbertese Astronomy And Astronomical Observances
Diné String Games
Museums And Other Institutions With String Figure Artifacts

The Implication Of String Figures For American Indian Mathematics Education, Charles G. Moore, Journal Of American Indian Education, Vol 28 No. 1, October 1988

The International String Figure Association is the best resource for further reading.

The ISFA publishes String Figure Magazine, and the Bulletin Of The International String Figure Association, as well as many others.

String Games: More Than Just Child's Play
A Brief History Of String

more Bibliography, and more.

posted by the man of twists and turns (15 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA has a pretty interesting string figure exhibit (featuring wax hands that sometimes get a little droopy in the LA heat): Fairly Safely Venture: String Figures from Many Lands and their Venerable Collectors.
posted by jjwiseman at 5:06 PM on January 20, 2014

I have this book. Worked it to death when I was a kid!
posted by Windopaene at 5:17 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was so good at these when I was a kid, and still have a surprising number in muscle memory. Can't wait to go through all the links!
posted by rtha at 5:50 PM on January 20, 2014

I got this for Christmas in the early 70's at about 12 years old- Good memories... Wonder if the nephews would stop playing video games long enough to learn this.
posted by bert2368 at 6:13 PM on January 20, 2014

I had a different and simpler book, String Games For Beginners by Kathleen Haddon (herself a famous collector of them). It's much shorter and selects some of the easier-to-make figures from sources like C. F. Jayne and the author's own anthropologist father A. C. Haddon.

If you were going to get one for a kid, I think that one might be better, just because it's more accessible. It wasn't until many years later I found Jayne's book, which has far more anthropological detail (outdated in its style, yes, but that's better than no anthropology at all). Super interesting, but I keep coming back to Haddon because her explanations are better!

String Figures used to be so common in ethnography and people thought they were somehow important clues to the spread of culture. (I was just reading a book by a woman who lived in the rain forest of New Guinea in the 1930s, and she talks about string games she learned from the native children.) Yet now the field doesn't seem to study them at all. I've never understood why they lost prominence. By the '60s their coverage is more as "mathematical recreations," and nowadays the only string figure books published are just fun-for-kids stuff.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I tried to use knitting and crocheting instructions with my technical writing class, but it was a mixed bag and one class devolved into a lot of cat's cradle with the yarn I brought. I've been idly thinking of reviving the activity with cat's cradle/string figure instructions instead--this is really helpful!
posted by Tesseractive at 7:29 PM on January 20, 2014

This reminds me of something I haven't thought of for years.

When I was a kid in Louisiana, we did these with Mardi Gras beads.

The main one I can still do is the Cup And Saucer. I'm almost positive that there was a Star and a Butterfly that you could do following the Cup And Saucer, but I can't quite get either of them.

I'm also pretty sure we did Jacob's Ladder, but I have no memory of how to do it.
posted by Sara C. at 7:39 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nice post. We discussed this here 11 years ago (this month, too). And as I said then, I’ve had Jayne’s book... almost 40 years, now, and it’s the best. At one time I was really into making about 15 or 20 of the figures over and over. (An Apache Door [p. 12] and Lightning [p. 216] are two of my favorites.) For me, this would be one of the books near the top of the ‘what to take to a desert island’ category.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:18 PM on January 20, 2014

OMG, Windowpaene! My Mom had a copy, and I also spent hours poring over this as a kid! I remember the (paperback) cover was hot pink.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 8:36 PM on January 20, 2014

Love that book. Other than cats cradle the only one I can remember is a thumb catch, you start like the regular with a twist I think and flip something, pull hands apart and both thumbs are attached.
posted by sammyo at 9:12 PM on January 20, 2014

Piles of YouTube videos here, btw.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another weave of thread...

"And then life changed - IT came into the field - A mechanical BAILER. It scooped up the scruffy straw and stuffed it into a box, and out the other end came a brick of straw, bound by two bands of golden binder twine. Then came the magic. The baler tightened the twine and in a move so fast you could not make out what it had done - IT KNOTTED IT - then spat the straw brick out the back."

"Up until then string and rope had been valuable commodities. At best, as a child, you could collect odd bits discarded by dad in the garden, or cadge a bit of used parcel string from mum. But now - hundreds and hundreds of feet of binder twine sat in the stack. Some bales broke and the twine was eagerly collected (that's if the farm hands didn't get it first) Then the straw began to be used in the stock pens and those great lengths of cut string began to be collected and soon it was EVERYWHERE. There was so much of it that even us kids were allowed to use it when we wanted to. But it was horrible stuff - unravelling at the slightest hint of work."
posted by dragonsi55 at 3:31 AM on January 21, 2014

Good thread, excellent bunch of links. Thanks for that.

I am no expert, but have fooled around with knots, on and off, for a few years. Amazing how much fun you can have with a simple piece of cord.
posted by Pouteria at 5:01 PM on January 21, 2014

Seconding the Museum of Jurassic Technology's string figure exhibit - which AFAICT is a permanent one, and a total delight. Plus, there are issues of journals produced by String Figure Assns. for sale in the gift shop.
posted by goofyfoot at 4:56 PM on January 22, 2014

Kwakiutl String Figures (download available)
posted by Rumple at 8:15 PM on January 30, 2014

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