String figures for learning hands

Picture from the cover of the Bulletin of
The International String Figure Association
, Volume 1 (1994)

James R. Murphy aka Black Fox, fig. Two Bears (a. 1986)
© Jeff Wang

String figures are designs formed from nothing more than a loop of string. Most of the time, people use their fingers to weave string figures, but sometimes, they also use their toes, knees, elbows, and mouth. String figures were once known to nearly all native inhabitants of East Asia, Australia, Africa, the Arctic, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands. Their function varied from place to place. In some locations, string figures provided a much needed artistic outlet - competitions were held to see who could make the most interesting design. In other locations, string figures were used by tribal storytellers to illustrate their tales. Elsewhere, string figures served as good luck charms to help ensure a bountiful harvest or a successful hunt. The number of possible designs is virtually limitless. Instructions for making over two thousand traditional patterns have been published since 1888, when anthropologist Franz Boas first described how to make an Eskimo string figure. In 1906, Caroline Furness Jayne writes : "In the finished patterns we find, among all races, representations of men and women, parts of the body, articles of dress, of commerce, and of warfare; and of stars, and natural phenomena - such as storms, darkness, and lightning." (1)

James R. Murphy © Robin Moore

James R. Murphy, fig. Four Weave Ten Men (a. 1986)
Jeff Wang

Learning hands, The Black Fox Gift of Strings, by James R. Murphy,

James R. Murphy writes: "I was a math teacher and I began to teach string figures as a way to reach students who din't "like" math. It was a great deal of fun for the students to "goof off" in class and make interesting designs. What they didn't count on was that it took dedicated effort and practice to become proficient at making figures. It took a focussed exactitude in performing a series of complex steps. This is exactly what it takes to become proficient at math and science. But the bottom line was that they truly enjoyed the experience and they all, repeat all, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams."

James R. Murphy's students at La Guardia, NYC
© Robin Moore

"I worked in a special school for minority sixth graders called prep for prep. They came from public schools all over New York City. This was a school which met all day saturday during their sixth grade year, and all one summer. The students were then placed in prestigious private schools in the city. It was a privilege for me to teach science (and a little string figures) to these gifted young men and women."

James R. Murphy's called prep for prep, NYC, a. 1997

Children learn string figures at Harrison School in Davenport, (Michigan, 2009

Sources :
The Museum of Jurassic Technology, exhibition: "Fairly Safely Venture: Cat's Cradles and their Venerable Collectors." : www.mjt.org
The International String Figure Association : www.isfa.org
James R. Murphy's web site : www.torusflex.com

(1) Caroline Furness Jayne, in String Figures and How to Make Them: A Study of Cat's Cradle in Many Lands, Dover Publications reprint, 1906