String Figures

No matter how carefully one guards against it, a library’s collection invariably reveals at least some of the interests and biases of the people buying it. In the case of the children’s collection at WPL, it is fairly evident, for instance, that Jason and I are children of the 80’s. We have a truly astonishing Star Wars collection. And we have, without a doubt, one of the premiere string figures collections going. I’m the one with the string figures obsession and, on a good day, can make a nice array of figures: Cup and Saucer, Mosquito, Cat’s Whiskers, Jacob’s Ladder, Eiffel Tower, that kind of thing. I can do Solo Cat’s Cradle, which took me about a month of daily effort to learn, and I can do a trick where it looks like the string is going through my neck. I make a figure that looks like Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants (very popular). I’m forever sharing my obsession with the children of Webster, and I’ve gone through some effort to acquire multiple copies of good string figure books and videos, doing special orders and even finding a couple things that are out-of-print.

String figures are a great thing to share with kids. Kids are still doing them on the playground, and many will be interested in figures they haven’t seen before. Learning figures encourages manual dexterity, perception of spatial relationships, and the value of perseverance (you will not get any string figure on the first try). This is a way to amuse oneself with essentially nothing, a wonderful counterbalance to all the entertainment and electronics in kids’ lives. Most important, kids love string figures: to them, they’re like magic. (When I do figures for kindergarteners and first graders, the most common comment after “Do it again!” is “You’re magic!”) I did a string figures program at the library this past Monday, and 26 kids, a handful of teen volunteers, and the three supervising adults (Tracy, Jason, and me) happily spent an hour working hard to try to teach and learn new figures. How fun!

As far as I’m concerned, there are three constellations of materials you need to know about:

David Titus

David Titus knows a whole lotta string figures, he tells stories with them, and he’s created a few DVDs. I’ve only watched String Magic from Around the World, which is awesome. I haven’t learned all the figures from it yet, which is why I haven’t explored any of the others. I assume they’re good. I’d also like to take a moment to plug the strings David sells because they are everything a string figure string should be and are also affordable if you’d like to keep some around to give away or use in programs. If you spend any kind of time doing figures, then you know the value of a brightly colored string that won’t tear up your fingers and doesn’t have a knot.

Camilla Gryski

Gryski’s amazing Cat’s Cradle, Owl’s Eyes: A Book of String Games and Many Stars and More String Games are out of print, which is a complete and total crime. They’re my favorite books to learn new figures from. Her directions are clear, and she has an amazing array of figures to learn. What you can get are two inexpensive paperbacks: Camilla Gryski’s Cat’s Cradle: A Book of String Games (teaches Cat’s Cradle and Solo Cat’s Cradle) and Camilla Gryski’s Favourite String Games (bunch of other figures). They’re paperbacks, but our copies (three each) are holding up just fine (although, come to think of it, we may have reinforced them a bit, but still). If God loves me, someday some publisher will bring the other two back in print with swanky new covers, in which case, I will buy many, many copies.


Don’t even start with me: I love Klutz books, and the string games ones can circulate! We own multiple copies of String Games from Around the World and Cat’s Cradle: A Book of String Figures (…which – WHAT? – is OUT OF PRINT?!? Since when? Forget what I said about loving Klutz. They are so on warning right now.) by Anne Akers Johnson. These books have clear, simple instructions and a great deal of cover-appeal. Given a choice, they’re the ones kids most often grab.

And *that* is a nice little project for August. Just in case you were running out of things to do.

0 thoughts on “String Figures

  1. Speaking of evidences of the eighties- check out our strawberry shortcake and teenage mutant ninja turtle materials. Among a host of others, particularly in the DVD collection :)…

  2. I thought it was just me! I have the Gryski books at home, and I bought them as an adult. As a kid, I had a book filled with small sketches and lots of detailed anthropological discussions of the figures’ origins, which I barely understood. (I think the book drew from Native American or possibly Eskimo culture) But I did learn how to do several figures from that book, including an elaborate fishing net.

    My favorite string figure story is the Yam Thief, where you tie five knots on your fingers, and then yank them all off dramatically as the thief steals the yams.

  3. It warms my heart to find another adults who loves the string as much as I do and recognizes the name “Gryski.” I wish I had copies of the out-of-print Gryskis for my very own, but at least I have access at the library….

  4. I should also mention that Jason had a major breakthrough at the string figures program on Monday and learned how to do the string-through-the-neck trick. I’ve been making fun at his inability to learn this trick for several years, so now I’ll have to find something else to make fun of him about.

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