LLX > Neil Parker

String Figures

"String figures? Do you mean cat's cradle? Isn't that a children's game?"

Well, yes, but...

Actually, string figures are very old and very widespread form of entertainment, with examples ranging from extremely simple to extremely complex found all over the world. And they haven't always been just children's games - in many cultures they were regarded as suitable recreation for anybody. It's only in modern times that string figures have come to be regarded as just for children.

And yes, Cat's Cradle is a string figure - one of thousands known, and an especially popular one, as it's one of the few figures in which two players take part equally.

But why, in American culture today, would someone other than a child (in particular the author of this page, who at the time of this writing is in his late 40's) have any interest in string figures? Many might try to answer that question by pointing out their scientific value: String figures do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of their makers' cultures, and as such, the meanings attached to them by their makers reflect those cultures, and the distribution of figures and the methods by which they are made can serve as tracers of migration and cultural contact.

But my purpose in writing these web pages is not scientific - my interest is in string figures as entertainment, as they were for the most part originally intended. I first encountered string figures in elementary school, and somehow never managed to outgrow my enjoyment of them. For those who think there's something wrong with that - that adults should be above enjoying "children's" entertainment - let me point out the phenomenon of J. K. Rowlings's Harry Potter books: even if you haven't read them yourself, or seen the movies, you probably know several adults who have, and who enjoyed them, despite the fact that Harry Potter is officially "for children" (indeed, I believe one of the marks of a good children's book is that it's good for adults too, but that's a rant for another day).

Below are instructions for making a number of string figures. I welcome comments and suggestions concerning these instructions (see my How to Send Mail to Neil page to find out how to reach me). Especially, don't hesitate to write to me if my instructions aren't clear, or if you find a mistake in them (they've been proofread, but it's all too easy for me to read what I meant to write rather than what I actually wrote).

LLX > Neil Parker