LLX > Neil Parker > String Figures
If there is one book every string figure enthusiast must have, it's Jayne's String Figures. Though it was published over a century ago, and its condescending attitude toward non-European cultures will be off-putting to the modern reader, it remains to this day the best, and largest, introduction to the subject.
But it has one fault that seriously annoyed me as a child: Chapter IX is filled with illustrations of finished patterns of numerous interesting figures, for which no instructions were available.
Fortunately, in the years since 1906, instructions have been found or reconstructed for many of them. These instructions are scattered across a variety of publications, some of them hard to find. By gathering here as many of them as is reasonably possible, I hope to spare other readers of Jayne some of the frustration I felt from that chapter.
Instructions are provided for all of Jayne's Chapter IX figures, except for the Nauru figures (the reasons for the omission of which are discussed below) and some of the the Australian figures (which I'm still working on). When I haven't been able to find any published instructions for a figure, I've provided a reconstruction of my own. Of course there's no guarantee that my reconstructions match the original methods (in fact, it's quite likely that most of them don't), but all the reconstructions (except possibly the one for Boas's "Wolf") produce results that match Jayne's illustrations as closely as possible.
At the beginning of her Chapter IX, Jayne describes how she was given instructions for a set of figures from the Eskimos of Alaska by Dr. George B. Gordon, but it was too late in the publication process to include the instructions in her book.
The good news is that Dr. Gordon's paper in which he describes most of these figures is available online. The bad news is that Gordon was not an expert at describing string figures, and his instructions range from mildly confusing to utterly incomprehensible. In the pages below, I've attempted to translate Gordon's instructions into a more understandable language.
Beware! Some of these figures are complicated and difficult to describe, and difficult for the inexperienced string figure maker to make. Beginners who haven't had practice with simpler figures will probably find many of these quite frustrating. One figure ("Whale and Fox") could serve as a final exam question for an advanced string figure class.
Along with the Eskimo figures above, Dr. Gordon gave Jayne four figures from the Tanana Indians of Alaska. Unfortunately, Dr. Gordon's paper in which he describes the Eskimo figures does not include the Tanana figures. Jayne sneaks instructions for one of them ("Crow's Feet") into her introduction to Chapter IX, but we're left to guess how the others were made.
I always thought these fifteen figures were the best in Jayne's book, and the fact that the figures on the front cover of the Dover edition are taken from this set made me feel genuinely cheated, when I discovered that instructions for making them could not be found within.
And I'm not alone in feeling betrayed by the cover illustration. In her 1966 review of the Dover edition, Honor Maude complains of "...a singularly inept cover design illustrating three of the few figures which she does not in fact tell us how to make." ([Maude 1966]...This is the only dark spot in an otherwise glowing review.)
Instructions for all of these figures, and many others of equal excellence, have been published in [Maude 2001]. Unfortunately for these web pages, this book is still under copyright, and including all the instructions here would probably exceed the bounds of fair use. But I will at least include the cover figures here, and thus I shall have my revenge for the bait-and-switch of that cover.
Note that of these three figures, only Tinamitto can be made with the same medium-length cotton string as the other figures on these pages. The other two require a long nylon string. (If you ignore this advice, you'll find that a medium-length loop doesn't provide enough string to complete the figure, and that a cotton string has too much friction, often catching against itself and forming knots when it needs to slide freely.)
Like the Eskimo figures above, beginners will probably find these figures frustratingly difficult.
Drawings of these three figures, without instructions, were originally published in [Boas 1888]. I've been able to find (probable) instructions for two of them, and a reconstruction of the third.
(see [Culin 1899]...but Culin's list of figures differs somewhat from the above, and Jayne's illustrations appear to be based on the original mounted figures rather than Culin's drawings.)
Jayne found this figure in the collection of the Philadelphia Free Museum of Science and Art (now the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology).
Walter E. Roth ([Roth 1902]) collected these figures from various locations on the northeast cost of Australia. Instructions for some of them can be found in [Davidson 1941], [K. Haddon 1918], and [Stanley 1926], and a few more in collections of New Guinea figures ([K. Haddon 1930], [Jenness 1920], [Landtman 1914]). I've been able to reconstruct a few others, but this section is still incomplete.
In his introduction to Jayne's book, Alfred C. Haddon writes, "My friend, Mr. W. Innes Pocock, has ... been able to discover ways in which many of these figures can be constructed; these I hope will be published by the Anthropological Institute of London in Man." Pocock's reconstruction of "Man Climbing a Tree" was published in [K. Haddon 1912], and widely copied, but I have been unable to find any evidence that his other reconstructions were ever published.
If you know how to make any of the figures missing from this list, I'd love to hear from you about it.
Note that Roth's drawings are inconsistent: Some figures are shown as seen by the maker, and some as seen by a spectator. Hand positions are equally inconsistent, and several drawings seem to show the figure as viewed from one side, but the hands as viewed from the opposite side, and sometimes the hands are upside down with respect to the figure. In the pages below, I've rotated the drawings so that the figure is rightside up...sometimes this causes hand positions, figure numbers, and illustrations to appear at strange angles.
(Missing figure numbers are figures for which I haven't been able to find instructions, or which require two players. The fact that the list starts with Plate III doesn't mean that two entire plates of figures are missing - Roth's Plate I and Plate II illustrate games unrelated to string figures.)
This figure is not mentioned in Chapter IX...its only appearance is in the Geographical Distribution of String Figures section of Chapter X, marked as being known but not yet published.
LLX > Neil Parker > String Figures