ISFA News, Volume 3, no. 2 (September, 1997)

ISFA Publishes Fourth Bulletin

This year’s Bulletin of the International String Figure Association is again the largest ever: Fifteen articles consuming 240 pages In fact, it was necessary to postpone the publication of two articles due to space limitations (Part II of the Arctic String Figure Project and Jim Murphy’s “Ten Men” system). Except for extra copies of the Bulletin, contributing authors receive no compensation for the articles they submit. Please let them know you appreciate their volunteer efforts! Express your thanks by sending them a letter or an e-mail message.

Thanks to a decrease in the price of paper, the cost of printing and mailing this year’s Bulletin is the same as the cost of last year’s Bulletin ($3200), despite the extra 48 pages. Mailing will begin in early October. Members residing outside North America can expect to receive their copy in mid-November (surface mail). Abstracts and the table of contents have already been posted at our web site if you are curious.

If you wish to submit an article for publication in the next Bulletin, please do so no later than May 1, 1998. We are advancing the deadline so that authors have more time to examine the page proofs. Guidelines for preparing manuscripts and illustrations are posted at our web site. It’s already clear that Volume 5 will be a pivotal issue: Will Wirt plans to dazzle us with figures he collected recently in China and Tibet, and Daniel McCarthy will describe figures gathered by a colleague in Nepal. Start planning your contribution today!

Magazine Update

On rather short notice Joseph D’Antoni agreed to prepare the September issue of String Figure Magazine so that Mark Sherman could focus on the Bulletin during the months of July and August. The September issue will feature 104 drawings that illustrate how to make six Pacific Island/Rim figures. As you can imagine, the drawings require a tremendous amount of time and effort, so please be patient. Mailing will begin as soon as possible. In the meantime, enjoy the Bulletin!

Welcome New Members

Although we now offer ‘more for the money’ than ever before, 25 members failed to renew this year (ouch!). However, ISFA did acquire 22 new members since March. We now have 109 members submitting annual dues of $25, almost enough to cover the cost of our Bulletin. Unfortunately, the cost of printing and mailing the Magazine remains a tremendous source of debt (~$2400/year). If every member would recruit just one additional member, our financial woes would disappear!

Our new members are: Maureen Lander and Jose Carey Smith, both from Auckland, New Zealand; Daniel Harmer, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Sergei Afonkin, St. Petersburg, Russia; Pieter van de Griend, Terneuzen, Netherlands; Ignacio Delgado Velasco, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain; Kazuhiro Kawashima, Tokyo; Minying Tan, Singapore; George B. Hardie, Jr., Miami, Florida; Michelle Horn, Green Bay, Wisconsin; Murtadha Khakoo, Fullerton, California; Ethel Lebenkoff, Berkeley, California; Lindsey Philpott, Long Beach, California; David Mosimege, Sovenga, South Africa; Marianne Gibbard, Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Canada; Jonathan Neufeld, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; Eugene J.D. Bowen, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Katherine Gleason, New York, New York; Larry Preuss, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Maggie Smith, Shelbyville, Indiana, and Michelle Tribble, Memphis, Tennessee. Also joining us again is Tom Cutrofello, Bronx, New York.

Act Locally, Think Globally

You can help us reach our goal of 250 members by acting locally. Make string figures in public places, or offer to demonstrate them at your local library, book store, hospital, retirement home, or elementary school.

Udo Engelhardt shares a string figure with bartender "Andrea" during a ski vacation in Soerenberg, Switzerland.

If you are really ambitious, form a local chapter of ISFA by running an ad in the newspaper. Meet monthly at a nearby school, café, or church and enjoy making string figures with others. Request $35 for annual dues ($25 for membership in ISFA, and $10 to cover your costs). Review the figures featured in our Magazine and Bulletin, then challenge members to invent their own variations. You might acquire your own string figure protégé or make a life-long friend!

Mark Sherman shows Jayne's "Crab" to a curious youngster while mom shops for Christmas gifts.

Member Profiles

Member Profiles has proven to be one of our most popular columns. In this issue, Julie Hocking of San Diego, California, shares with us her unique experiences as volunteer reader.

My dad taught me how to do Cat’s Cradle when I was a girl, but I had not done much more with string until my own kids were 6 or 7. I became interested again in string figures when I took the kids to hear story tellers at the local library. Several tellers would begin their program with a few figures, and one in particular would tell stories using string figures within the story.

Julie Hocking

I checked out books that the library had, including several by Camilla Gryski. I had to go to the archives to get Jayne's String Figures and How to Make Them out of storage. It fascinated me. I started at the beginning and worked my way through anything that I could figure out. That was not all of the figures by any means, but I was successful with quite a few.

One day on a whim I searched the Internet for “String Figures” and found the International String Figure Association. Wow! I never had guessed that string figures were so formalized. The Bulletins were a great source for new figures.

I am a volunteer Rolling Reader. Rolling Readers is a program in the elementary schools where a volunteer reads to a class for half an hour each week for the entire school year. Three times a year the kids are given free books. I started demonstrating the string figures I knew as a warm up to the stories I read. The kids loved it. They wanted to learn how to do string figures. Last year, I taught a class of first and second graders how to do the “Fly.” The best part was when a child who figured out how to do it began to teach another. The whole class was successful.

This past spring, I was a chaperone on a 4th grade two hour train trip from San Diego to the San Juan Capistrano Mission. I brought along lots of string, and started teaching figures. The kids loved it. Many kids began teaching others, and their enthusiasm grew. One boy was determined to learn the “Dog with Big Ears,” and although we ran out of time, he had the first several moves down. By the end of the trip, just about everyone had a string and had learned at least one figure. Several kids learned three or four.

Last month, the Children’s Room librarian of the downtown branch of the San Diego Public Library invited me to teach string figures as their Sunday afternoon program. I taught “The Fly” “Fishing Spear” and “Sewing Machine.” I wrote out simple directions for the first two and got permission to reproduce the “Sewing Machine” so each participant could take home directions. I demonstrated several figures first and got everyone involved in helping each other. The librarian had created a display of library books of string figures and most were taken to be checked out by the end of the program.

I have found out that I like teaching string figures to children. I delight in their faces when they “get” a new figure. I like amusing myself with string when I am in situations where waiting is required. I try to always have an extra string with me for a friend. Most of all, I like string figures because they are FUN!

First International Gathering Planned for July 1998

The question most frequently asked by new members is: “When does ISFA plan to sponsor its first meeting?” The answer has always been “As soon as someone volunteers to organize it!” At last we have our volunteer -- Brian Cox.

For the past 14 years Brian has served as “Family Area Coordinator” at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, an internationally acclaimed music event that attracts thousands of visitors. In the Family Area, which consists of several large tents and covered stages, parents and children are invited to participate in hands-on activities like origami, magic, juggling, and storytelling. The instructors also perform on stage at regular intervals throughout the 3-day event.

Brian would like to see string figures added to the itinerary, with members of ISFA serving as instructors and performers (11 AM - 6 PM). After 6 PM the Family Area closes, but ISFA members would be permitted to remain there until dark (9 PM). During that time members could participate in workshops, share newly invented figures, or just socialize. Sessions might feature the string figures of a specific region, or a specific technique that members want to learn.

Gathering at the Folk Fest is ideal for several reasons: (1) We need not rent a meeting hall; (2) Inexpensive lodging is available nearby (two massive campgrounds plus the Winnipeg International Inn); (3) We need not rent cars (a free shuttle bus transports performers and volunteers from the campgrounds/hotel to the Festival site); (4) Free publicity for ISFA is guaranteed given the huge crowds!

The 1998 Festival is scheduled for July 9-12. In order to organize a productive meeting, Brian needs to know: (1) Who is interested in attending; (2) Who would be willing to serve as an instructor or performer in the Family Area; (3) Who would be willing to organize a workshop or give a presentation at the nightly ISFA meetings.

If you think you might be able to attend, please contact Brian Cox as soon as possible. You need not commit at this point -- a simple expression of interest will suffice. If no one expresses interest in attending, we will cancel the meeting!!

You can write Brian at: 31 Oakview Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R2K OR6, Canada, or contact him by e-mail ( His home phone number is (204) 669-3697. Brian is also building a home page that will include information about the meeting as it evolves (

For more information on the Folk Festival itself, write the organizers at 264 Taché Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R2H 1Z9, Canada, or visit their web site (

Plans for an Internet String Figure Discussion Group

ISFA member Will Wirt is currently organizing an Internet discussion group dedicated to string figures. Anyone with an e-mail address can participate. Topics might include: (1) Comments or questions about articles in the ISFA bulletin or magazine; (2) Requests for help in forming or describing particular figures; (3) Descriptions of favorite or newly discovered or invented figures; (4) General sharing of resources (finding out who has specific books and articles).

There are already dozens of discussion groups on the Internet, each devoted to a different topic. Here’s how they work: A participant uses e-mail to submit a topic for discussion. The message is addressed to a central computer (a server), which then relays the message to everyone on the mailing list. Anyone wishing to participate in the discussion can reply to the message via e-mail. The server then forwards the reply to everyone on the mailing list. The replies to a given topic constitute a “thread.” A thread can run for several days or weeks before interest wanes.

Even if you don’t participate in the discussion you still receive all the messages, as if you were observing or listening to a debate. In many cases, the server can be programmed to store all the messages in an “archive” which can be searched at a later date by anyone seeking information on a specific topic.

Will Wirt has volunteered to moderate the discussion group and locate a permanent server. For non-profit groups, universities will often provide access to a server at no charge. If you want to participate but your e-mail address has changed or is not on the latest ISFA membership list, send a message to Will (

Odds and Ends

Sergei Afonkin, chairman of the St. Petersburg Origami Center, is writing what appears to be the first Russian string figure book. Thanks to Udo Engelhardt the book will include figures that are currently popular in Europe. Afonkin’s daughter Alexandra, a professional artist, is preparing the illustrations. Mark Sherman has contributed an introduction. Dr. Afonkin, who edits and publishes a bimonthly origami magazine, says that origami is sweeping the nation! Given the current economic crunch, Russians are desperate for cheap entertainment. He is hoping that string figures will fill the same void.

Speaking of Russia, Dave Titus recently returned from the Russian Far East (Provideniya, Siberia) where he was able to visit several Eskimo villages. Although his group’s activities were closely monitored by the Russian government and local police, he was able to visit a few schools and inquire about string figures. The children knew Osage Two Diamonds, Jacob’s Ladder, Cat’s Cradle, and The Mouse (see Jayne). Dave taught several boys a hanging trick. He is hoping that his visit will renew their interest in string figures and inspire them to remember more before his next visit.

Hollywood Update: Will Wirt reports that several string figures appeared in Barbra Streisand’s recent film “The Mirror has Two Faces.” The humorous scene features a large, unattractive women employed by the adult entertainment industry as a “telephone actress.” The woman weaves string figures to alleviate boredom while attempting to arouse her client...

Paul Fleishman of Pacific Grove, California, has written an opera that incorporates a few string figures. Unfortunately, it has yet to be performed. He is also writing a children’s story book built around an original series of string figures. The book will be published by Henry Holt, probably in 1999.

Maureen Lander, Maori Studies Department, University of Auckland, is supervising a multimedia project entitled the “Maori String Figures Project.” The project will document the production of string from flax fibre and its subsequent use in making string figures. Ms. Lander’s team also hopes to recover associated waiata (songs), karakia (chants), and narratives from Maori elders (the Maori are Polynesians that settled in New Zealand about a thousand years ago). Documentation will incorporate photographs and video clips from footage shot by James McDonald during 1919-1921 (New Zealand Film Archive). Several computer scientists are also involved. Their goal is to develop a multimedia presentation that integrates video, text, voice, and music. They are also working on a computerized database of string figures. The figures will be sorted according to design similarities.

Rahmat Budiarto, a student of Dr. Masashi Yamada at the Nagoya Institute of Technology, Japan, is working on a computer program that will represent string figures in 3D. The system also animates the construction process. He is currently testing the system with two-loop figures and hopes to write about it in a future issue of our Bulletin.

According to Sam Cannarozzi Yada, Audrey Small is shown making the Yupik string figure “Seagull” in the “Storyteller’s Calendar” (1997, month of July). ISFA is mentioned at the bottom of the page. Thanks Audrey!

In August, Mark Sherman presented a paper at the 4th International Easter Island Symposium held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The paper, entitled “Easter Island String Figures: Variations on a Theme” will appear in the conference proceedings. He also met several islanders who incorporate kaikai (string figures) into their dance performances, and enjoyed shared a few figures with them. His observations will appear in a future Bulletin article.

Speaking of Easter Island String Figures: two compact discs were recently released which include some of the patautau (chants) that accompany kaikai. The first, Te Pito O Te Henua, an anthology of Easter Island songs and dances (Pan 2077CD) can be purchased in the US from Arhoolie Productions, (toll free 1-888-274-6654). Their web address is The second, Spirit of Polynesia (Saydisc CD-SDL 403) is available from H&B; Recordings Direct, (toll free 1-800-222-6872). Their web address is The first CD includes the chant for E Kuha, E Rati, a figure featured in the June 1996 issue of our magazine.

Tom Cutrofello has rejoined us after a three-year absence. In 1993 Tom produced the first commercially successful string figure video (Finger Jazz, reviewed in volume 2 of our Bulletin). The video is still available and can be purchased directly from Tom. His new address is 2725 Pearsall Ave., Bronx, New York, 10469. His phone number is (718) 547-5499. His next project is a CD-ROM.

Professor Luis Bonilla of Rubio, Venezuela, has launched his own newsletter entitled Figuras de Cordel: Boletin de Investigacion Estudio y Preservacion de las Figuras de Cordel (ISSN 1316-4252). The four-page newsletter, written in Spanish, is being distributed free of charge to various libraries in Venezuela and South America. Its purpose is to promote the study and preservation of string figures throughout Latin America. Prof. Bonilla is also writing a series of articles for the Venezuelan daily newspaper La Nacion. “Figuras de Cordel: un Entretenimiento Barato” appeared in the January 12, 1997 edition. This was followed on the 26th by “ El Cordel en los Juegos Populares.” For copies write to Prof. Bonilla at Aparto Postal 724, Rubio 5030- Edo. Táchira, Venezuela.

Dr. Hiroshi Noguchi of Tokyo, Japan recently published another string figure book for children. Details will appear in the next newsletter.

David Mosimege is currently writing his doctoral dissertation for the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. His research involves evaluating traditional games that are popular in the northern Provinces of South Africa to see if they can be used to enhance mathematical understanding in the classroom. String figures are among the games he is studying. Upon completing his study, David would very much like to contribute an article to our Bulletin. He is currently employed as a lecturer on mathematics education at the University of the North, South Africa.

Kazuo Kamiya of Saitama, Japan, has donated three of his books to ISFA. They are: Sousaku Ayatori Nyumon (Introduction to Creative String Figures), 1979; Tanoshii Sousaku Ayatori (Pleasant Creative String Figures), 1980; and Tanosii Densyou Ayatori (Pleasant Traditional String Figures); 1981. The first was published by Toho Gakugei Sha, the last two by Nihon Bungei Sha, Tokyo. All include excellent line drawings of each stage, (much like String Figure Magazine), and feature many original designs never before published (“Fighting Dinosaurs” is my favorite). Unfortunately, all three are of out-of-print!

In a recent letter, Martin Probert of Hartley, Plymouth, England, points out that many classic books and articles describing string figures are exceedingly difficult to locate, and that even when located, not all libraries allow you to make photocopies of them. He therefore suggests that we establish a lending library comprised of items donated by members. At this stage its not clear who would administer the collection, who would pay the postage, what could be borrowed and for how long, and what the penalty for non-return of items would be (beheading? excommunication?). This sounds like a great topic for the proposed Internet discussion group! Start collecting thoughts on how this might work. Perhaps you know how other organizations run their lending libraries.

Michael Meredith of Amarillo, Texas, has volunteered to design and print T-shirts for us. In addition, he has offered to donate any profit they generate to ISFA! The shirts will feature our name, logo, and the caption “String Along with Us.” He is also investigating the possibility of ordering ISFA coffee mugs. Details will appear in the next newsletter.

Last updated June 5, 1998
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