ISFA News, Volume 4, no. 2 (September, 1998)

Bulletin and Magazine Delayed

Although we try to distribute our Bulletin each year in September, sometimes the volume and complexity of the material submitted exceeds our capacity to process it in the alloted time. This year sixteen manuscripts were submitted. As a result we are currently experiencing a two-month delay and do not anticipate mailing the Bulletin until late November. The September issue of String Figure Magazine is likewise delayed. We therefore ask for your patience.

In addition to Book Reviews, Letters to the Editor, and Modern String Figures, this year’s Bulletin will feature the following articles: Tribute to Honor Maude (Sherman); Collecting String Figures in Papua New Guinea (Noble); Sequencing (Yada); Topological Psychology and String Figures (Massat); Polynesian String Figures and Rongorongo (Rjabchikov); String Figures as Indicators of Cultural Connections (von Hornbostel); Some String Figures from Nepal (articles by McCarthy and Titus); String Figures from China and Tibet (articles by Wirt and Reichert); Generalizing the Trap (Stevenson); Reconstructing String Figure Patterns (D’Antoni); Using String Figures to Teach Math Skills, Part II: The Ten Men System (Murphy); String Fling: How I Invent New String Figures (Newkirk); Fun with an Eight-foot Loop (Probert); and Proposal for an Annotated String Figure Bibliography (Ratajczak).

Welcome New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired thirty-three new members. Five previous members rejoined. We now have 158 members residing in nineteen countries.

Our new members are: Eoin C. Bairéad, Dublin, Ireland; Hélène Kopff, Clamart, France; Yaroslav Koryakov, Ekaterinburg, Russia; Chang Whan Maia, Niterói, Brazil; Right Rev. Sir Paul Reeves, Auckland, New Zealand; Audrey Bierman, Grinnell, Iowa; Charles D. Callery, Poway, California; Brian Carroll, Blairstown, New Jersey; Daniel Cole, Honolulu, Hawaii; Sandy Connery, Santa Cruz, California; Larry Davis, Armonk, New York; Edward Ebert, Toledo, Ohio; Bruce Feldmeyer, Colorado Springs, Colorado; JoAnn Hays, Atchison, Kansas; Belinda Holbrook, Davenport, Iowa; Ned Holbrook, Hanover, New Hampshire; Thomas Kubota, Louisville, Tennessee; John P.R. Lee, Ossining, New York; Mike Mangan, Downey, California; Jacqueline Martindale, Boulder, Colorado; John McCluer, Phoenix, Arizona; Paul Moulton, Bangor, Maine; David Parkinson, Seattle, Washington; Plains Conservation Center, Aurora, Colorado; James O. Porter, Mars, Pennsylvania; Mike Raynor, Lamoine, Maine; Catherine Salika, Urbana, Illinois; Devonna Shannon, Killen, Alabama; Randy von Smith, Akron, New York; Jacqueline Viol, Ada, Michigan; M. Waters, Granville, New York; Patricia Whale, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Steven Zoraster, Austin, Texas; Welcome!

ISFA Mentioned in Scientific American

Advertising is expensive but is usually available to everyone. Publicity, on the other hand, is often free but is much more difficult to obtain since a personal endorsement is involved. We therefore owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Ian Stewart, world- renowned math author and Scientific American columnist, for mentioning us in the 'Feedback' section of his Mathematical Recreations column (June 1998, page 96).

In his column, Dr. Stewart acknowledges receiving our Bulletins in response to his 'Cat’s Cradle Calculus Challenge' and cites two articles that address mathematical issues (Storer’s 'String Figures' in the 1988 special issue and Murphy’s 'Using String Figures to Teach Math Skills' in the 1997 issue). But most importantly, Stewart cites our postal and web addresses, encouraging the reader to contact us for more information. To date we’ve received letters of inquiry from several dozen readers, and many have since become members. Thank you Dr. Stewart!

Members of ISFA Gather in Winnipeg

On July 9, 1998, a handful of members arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, to attend the first international gathering of the International String Figure Association, which began on Thursday and ended on Sunday, July 12. The gathering was dedicated to Honor Maude, who celebrated her 93rd birthday on the 10th. Those is attendance were: Mark Sherman (California), Jonathan Neufeld (Winnipeg), Sally Abraham (Vancouver), Will Wirt and spouse (Washington), Audrey C. Small and spouse (California), Dave Titus (Oklahoma), Tim Kennedy and family (North Dakota), and Belinda Holbrook and family (Iowa).

From left to right: Tim Kennedy, Audrey Small, Phil Small, Nate Holbrook, Belinda Holbrook, Sally Abraham, Dave Titus, Jonathan Neufeld, Will Wirt, Mark Sherman

The gathering was sponsored by the 25th annual Winnipeg Folk Festival. ISFA member Brian Cox (Winnipeg) coordinated the event, reserving hotel rooms and securing performers passes for us. The passes entitled us to free shuttle service to and from the festival grounds, free admission, and free meals. In exchange, ISFA members agreed to demonstrate their skills in the family area each afternoon. Tim Kennedy, Brian Cox, and Dave Titus gave stage presentations. A selection of photographs taken during the meeting is available for viewing on the web, courtesy of Will Wirt (

In the family area members taught kids how to make simple string figures like Cup and Saucer, Fish Spear, and Jacob’s Ladder. Members also exchanged dozens of delightful figures among themselves. Dave and Tim did a wonderful job of breathing life into stale string figures that many of us had seen in books but had never made. Mornings and evenings were devoted to private sessions. Friday evening Will Wirt showed slides of his string figure collecting adventures in Peru, Guyana, China, and Tibet. Mark Sherman gave a short presentation on the history of the book he co-authored with Julia Averkieva (Kwakiutl String Figures). Audrey Small demonstrated how the rhythm of certain poems matches that of the hands while weaving string figures. Saturday morning Mark Sherman conducted a workshop on Nauruan string figures in celebration of Honor Maude’s birthday. Our goal was to make the three string figures on the cover of Jayne’s book. During Saturday evening’s session Dave Titus showed us pictures of his string figure informants in Alaska and Nepal. This was followed by a demonstration of many novel Inuit action figures, such as ‘Eyes Before and After Coffee’. During Sunday morning’s session Belinda Holbrook shared her experiences teaching string figures to inner-city children. Audrey Small told us about her mother, Paula Collinson, who learned string figures in England from her professors. Sally Abraham told us a touching story about a homeless man who fell in love with a string figure book she gave him (which he later paid for, despite his hardship!). Finally, Jonathan Neufeld showed us ‘catching fish’, a fun variation of Jacob’s Ladder.

All members agreed that the most rewarding aspect of the gathering was having the chance to spend time with fellow enthusiasts -- something most of us had never experienced. Also deemed worthwhile was our work in the family area at the festival -- the expression on a child’s face upon successfully completing a new string figure is something you never forget. Although the date and location of our next gathering has not been decided, everyone is eager to meet again.

Member Profiles

While North American members gathered in Winnipeg to share figures and a few laughs, several European members met individually to do the same. Below are descriptions of two such meetings. The first describes Martin Probert’s visit with Carey Smith in England. The second describes Philip Noble’s visit with Udo Engelhardt in Germany. You, too, can become famous! Send us a letter describing your string adventures. Include a photo if possible.

Carey and Helen Smith at their summer home in England. The string figure is Jayne’s ‘Crab’

Carey Smith, author of the outstanding String Figures from the Congo (BISFA 4:135-184) and resident of New Zealand, wrote recently to say that he was in England and to suggest we meet up. Veronika (my wife) and I had the great pleasure of meeting Carey and Helen (his wife) on 23rd April. It was a rotten day, storm force winds and driving rain, but their warm hospitality and Helen’s fine cooking (including some exceptional apple and blackberry crumble) soon had us dried out.

How did the Congo article come to be published in BISFA? Carey (a sprightly former surgeon who enjoys using his hands) is now over 80 and was concerned over the fate of his mother’s collection of sixty seven figures. He wondered if there was anyone in the world interested in string figures. In the front of Kathleen Haddon’s book, by the copyright notice, he had spotted the name Rishbeth (KH’s married name). A search through telephone directories revealed a Rishbeth living in Southampton, England. Carey wrote -- and Henry Rishbeth, son of Kathleen Haddon, wrote back, putting Carey in touch with ISFA and Mark Sherman, and taking the trouble to travel all the way from Southhampton to Devon to visit Carey. The rest -- as they say -- is history. But for Carey’s determination and research his mother’s collection would certainly have disappeared for all time.

Carey is a real enthusiast. He travels with a thick (very thick) charmingly home-made notebook in which he copies the figures that interest him: to these he has added his own ‘creations’ (a term he prefers to ‘inventions’) and a comprehensive series of indexes. The Mija Opening figures (see BISFA 4:138) he learnt from his mother and remembers to this day. Carey gave a memorable performance of the series Fishnet - Pots - Harvest Moon - Constellation of Stars - Bird - Hammock - Half Moon - Anteater. The figures -- in Carey's hands -- flowed smoothly and quickly one into another. It was a privilege to witness the formation of these figures which have been handed down by demonstration from the Congo informants through the collector Ethel M. Smith and so to her son. Carey has also developed a number of shortcuts that enable him to proceed quickly to individual figures in the series.

Another high point of our visit was the presentation to us of a length of string brought by Carey’s mother from the Congo. The string is made of two strands twisted together, each strand composed of many fibres. Carey explained that the fibres were stripped from the bark of a tree, then twisted between palm and thigh to form a strand, the strands being further twisted together. Carey also explained how he prepared the illustrations for the BISFA article: he placed each completed figure on a home-made frame (he generously gave me his ‘UK frame’ which he insisted he had no further use for), adjusted the tension and the positioning of the strings with a number of pegs pushed into holes in the baseplate, then sketched the figure freehand directly onto paper using a pencil. Another neat figure Carey showed was the ‘Push-Chair’ (BISFA 4:169), a most amusing figure in his hands, and one which he later quoted as an example of what he termed ‘loose’ figures -- figures displayed without full extension. He spoke warmly of the encouragement he received when preparing the Congo article from Mark Sherman and from Joseph D’Antoni. Carey performs a whole range of figures besides those from the Congo: I found myself entranced by the smooth movement of his hands while making the New Guinea Crab (Jayne 1962:89- 95).

Carey’s other talents include carpentry. Among the many items he has made is a four foot loom upon which Helen (a former physiotherapist) weaves fine cloth of excellent design: she had a few beautiful specimens with her which were a delight to look upon. Apparently Carey and Helen, a charming and delightful couple, have been visiting England from New Zealand every year for the last sixteen years -- what a pity we only discovered each other during what is to be Carey and Helen’s last visit.

Philip Noble (left) and Udo Engelhardt (right) imprison Udo’s wife Ingrid (center) with a giant version of Jayne’s ‘Apache Door’.

In early July my family and I were in Berlin with Udo and family, a kind of mini- convention of two families. Our visit included a canoe trip, Berliner Wiser, (the Berlin equivalent of lager and lime), swimming in the lake, kites and boomerangs, and tours of the city. Udo presented my son (who had no real interest in string figures till this holiday) and I with fine coloured strings. That evening we made a giant version of the ‘Apache Door’ in his garden. There is no television in the main room of Udo’s home but lots of wooden puzzles in a glass case and several strings hung up, just asking to be played with -- a good idea! We also visited Udo’s daughter (Caroline Sokoll) and her family in Switzerland. All the children had lovely coloured strings made by their grandfather. I never even thought to ask how they were made. Isn’t that too often the way?

Response from Udo Engelhardt: In Germany, where I live, almost every Baumarkt (store for construction, tools, home, do it yourself, etc.) sells polypropylene woven cord in different colours (yellow, green, red, white, blue) from rolls by the meter. The price is about 0.50 DM per meter for 4mm thick string. I join the ends using a soldering iron fastened to a work table: A length of cut string is held with both hands so that the free ends touch opposite sides of the iron’s hot tip until they just melt. I then immediately put together the melted ends and roll the joint between my thumb and index finger, so that a smooth connection is formed exactly as thick as the string. You can also join differently-coloured segments using this method. String cutting is easily accomplished as well. Just hold the string against the tip of the hot soldering tool until the string melts, then pull. Unlike scissors, this method prevents the ends from fraying.

New Associate Editor: Will Wirt

Good news! Will Wirt, administrator of our highly successful e-mail discussion group, has accepted an offer to serve as an associate editor of our Bulletin. This honorary position is reserved for individuals who have established a history of publishing in the field and have demonstrated evidence of long-term interest in the subject. Other requirements include computer literacy and a willingness to serve without pay! I’m sure you’ll agree that no one is more qualified than Will. As an associate editor Will will proofread and correct string figure instructions submitted by contributors, and offer advice on how to improve the Bulletin's content and distribution.

He has also volunteered to finish up the long awaited second installment of the 'Arctic String Figure Project' (the Jenness collection). In the near future revised methods and photos of key intermediate stages will begin to appear on the web for ISFA members to evaluate. Once approved, ISFA Press will publish the document as a book. Please join me in thanking Will Wirt for agreeing to help!

In Memory of Greg Keith (1944-1998)

On June 10th I received word that Greg Keith had died on Monday (June 8th) after a year-long battle with throat cancer. I last spoke to Greg in November and sensed that things were not good. He had just sent us a generous donation ($200) accompanied by a note stating that his stock had done well and that he wanted to ‘share the wealth.’

I will always remember Greg as "Mr. 1-1": the article he wrote for our first Bulletin appeared on page 1. In his article (The Presence of String in the Postmodern World), Greg whimsically described his adventures with string and all the colorful people he met as a result -- it really is a joy to read. This was followed in 1995 by a series of photos he received from friend/photographer Janjaap showing a young Chiapas boy, adorned with a bandana-mask, making a string figure. Both Greg and I agreed that these powerful images illustrated quite nicely the bitter contrast between dirty politics and the innocence of youth.

Despite his illness Greg was always willing to entertain a child with string figures. In 1996 he was asked by Klutz Press, the publisher of a very popular string figure book, to serve as a representative of the ISFA and to give a demonstration in their main store -- which he did, all with great style and charm. He often incorporated his own poetry into his string figure demonstrations, which made them even more special.

Much of Greg’s poetry has been published. His most recent collection "Life Near 310 Kelvin," went to press shortly before his death. The foreword has a wonderful anecdote about string figures. You can order a copy for $14.95 from SLG Books, PO Box 9465, Berkeley, CA 94709, phone: 800-603-9903, fax: 510-525-2632. The book is also available on CD-ROM. Excerpts are posted on the web ( /begin.htm), where you’ll also find photos of Greg and pages from the journal he kept during the last months of his life. Greg is survived by his wife, Susan Borton, and children from a previous marriage.

String Figure Discussion Group: Summary of Topics

Since not everyone has access to e-mail and our string figure discussion group, a summary of topics posted since March is provided here. If a specific topic interests you and you would like a printed copy of the message and the responses it generated, contact ISFA Press.

Last updated November 3, 1999
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