LLX > Neil Parker > String Figures

How To Read the Instructions

Basic Vocabulary

In order to understand the instructions used elsewhere in these pages, you will need to know some vocabulary. Some of these terms will seem obsure and awkward at first, but there are only a few such terms, and they can be learned rapidly, with only a little practice.

String figures are made using (surprise!) a piece of string with the ends tied together ("the loop"), and held on the fingers. The fingers are identified by their usual English names: thumb, index, middle, ring, and little.

For describing the positions of string segments on the fingers, and locations near the fingers, and directions, a standard vocabulary was introduced by [Rivers 1902]. It introduces six terms, mostly derived from anatomy:

But in most of the instructions on these web pages, in the interest of being more accessible to the beginner, I will be avoiding these scientific terms, and relying on a simplified vocabulary:

These simplified terms have obvious meanings whenever the hands are in the "standard position," palms facing each other, and fingers pointing up. But unfortunately, they can become confusing when (as is sometimes the case, especially in the Arctic figures) the fingers are pointing in unusual directions. In such cases I will use the scientific terms to clarify what is meant.

Other Common Expressions and Conventions

Above I wrote of "string segments." In practice the word "segment" is always omitted, and we speak of string segments as "strings," as if they were separate things.

The loop means the entire loop of string. A finger loop is a piece of string passing around a finger. A finger loop generally has a near (radial) string, and a far (ulnar) string.

To return means to bring a finger back to the position it was in at the beginning of a move. (This instruction usually occurs at the end of a move.)

To release a finger loop means to allow the loop to slip off the finger holding it.

To transfer a loop from finger A to finger B means to insert finger B into the finger A loop (from below [proxmially], unless specified otherwise), and release the loop from finger A, catching it on finger B.

Exchanging loops is done between fingers of opposite hands, and means to transfer (from above [distally], unless specified otherwise) the loop from a finger of one hand to the corresponding finger of the other hand, and then transferring the original loop of the finger of the other hand to the finger of the first hand. This involves passing one loop through the other, and it's important which loop passes through which, so the instructions will always specify "passing right loop through left," or "passing left loop through right."

Twisting a loop can be done toward you (in the radial direction) or away from you (in the ulnar direction). In either case, it means to put a twist in a loop by moving the finger in a circle, starting in the indicated direction, and continuing around its own loop, finally returning to its original position. Care must be taken not to catch the strings of any other finger during the motion. Sometimes half-twists must be made - it will generally be obvious from the context what this means.

If instructed to put a new loop onto a finger that already has a loop on it, the new loop should be positioned above (distal to) the old loop (unless indicated otherwise). In such cases it is often necessary to keep the loops carefully separated.

Unless the instructions say to do something with just one hand, then both hands should make the move simultaneously, as mirror images of each other.

Usually, after each step of the instructions, the hands should be separated as far as the strings permit, taking up any slack. In the few cases where this should not be done, the instructions will say so explicitly.

Untangling Finished Figures

When a figure is done, dissolving it (i.e. taking it apart, back to the simple unknotted loop) is often difficult - just dropping the string and pulling randomly at loops will usually result in knots, forcing you to stop and spend several tedious minutes untying them.

Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed rule for avoiding this, but for figures with two long straight strings (one at the top and one at the bottom), it's usually easy - just grab the long straight strings as close to their middles as possible and pull them gently away from each other.

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