A brief description of how to get started

I would like to say here that I learned more about string figures from the students I taught than they learned from me. They all learned what I am trying to explain, but many ran right past me and began to show me what they had found. I became more the amanuensis of the group than the teacher. I tended to try to notate and codify so the students could use a little system in their searching, and a substantial number of my students were my teacher in string figures, and they loved to spread their thoughts to the others.

String figures were not “describable” in print until 1902 when a “language” for such recording of manufacture was invented by W. H. R. Rivers and A. C. Haddon. There was an immediate rush by anthropologists and others to find figures and collect their methods of manufacture to investigate pre-historic contact patterns. It was thought that similarities in forming certain figures would “prove” that contact between the two peoples had occurred in pre-history. There were, and still are, various diffusionist theories for this contact and spread of figures. There are many arguments pro and con concerning this aspect of the string figure literature, but they are not my focus of interest. I have concentrated on several of the more “weblike” figures which lend themselves to systematic variation in their method of manufacture.

The core figures I have thought about most are:

• the Diamonds (simple two loop figures)


• 10 men (a Pacific island 3 loop figure)


• an Inuit (Eskimo) figure called ” fish net” (3 loops)

inuit net drawing

• a Dine’ (Navajo) figure called “Many Stars” (3 loops)


• a Klamath figure called “a net” (3 loops)

klamath net drawing

There are other figures which I will bring into the discussion I am presenting, but the learning of these five figures and the beginning of mastering their systematic permutation will form the basis of my gift to any individual who wishes to learn more about this fascinating subject.

I will also introduce certain procedures which will be of great use in studying the above five figures. They will be:

• Katilluik (an Inuit idea which I use for adding complexity and for three dimensional figures)

• various “iteration” moves (actually rotating the figure on the hands so as to weave from both sides of the figure)

• inverse procedures

• linking procedures (for concatenating different systems together)

• the power lift (for displaying complex figures)

These additional techniques help open up the study of string figures and bring a more mathematical approach to their invention. And these ten procedural learnings are my approach to learning string figures, and through this learning to learn how to learn.

There aren’t that many things necessary to learn in order to become quite good at inventing one’s own figures and becoming proficient at forming others described with the language I have devised. This is in direct opposition to the tradition of learning each figure on its own, for an ongoing series of learnings from the beginning for each. This is disturbingly similar to the usual mathematical teaching which has each class be a unique little pattern to learn and how these individual patterned learnings fit into a whole of understanding is often not adequately explained. So hopefully my system is more geared to permitting mastery by anyone who attempts its learning.

an introductory explanation of the inuit net system of forming figures

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