The strings which you need to begin your journey into the world of string figures will probably of a synthetic plastic material. This material has the convenience of being able to be welded together with the use of a candle or other suitable source of small amounts of heat. The ends, freshly cut, are touched momentarily to the flame and then held together for a second or two before the still gluey blob is rolled between the fingers to form a more or less pleasing join.
Before I found this method of manufacture, I crocheted strings using a long chain stitch with a dovetailed union of the two ends, and braided the tag ends into the string proper. This necessarily took a long time, but the results were immensely gratifying for the users, especially the young ones who learned to make their own.
A crocheted string of cotton, silk, linen or synthetic materials offers different realities when forming the figures. Each string actually has a uniqueness which makes it a pleasure to check out a new string and search for those patterns which that unique string does best.
I have also used many different colors for the strings because I store them wrapped around my wrist when I am not using them to form figures. This colorful band makes a pleasing bit of color for one’s dress. My students avidly seek various colors to complement their wardrobes.
All this suggests that strings make natural gifts: Gifts of time spent caring and fashioning; gifts to be given to friends. It would be nice, also, if each of you would make a string to be given to new students who will be in the next class like this after yourselves.
We begin to see that there are other lessons to be learned from strings in addition to learning how to make figures. One of the first lessons to be learned by all children is to take care of the string. It should be carried with them in some fashion and they should make every effort to insure that their string does not get lost.
Another lesson is to learn how to make one’s own strings. I would suggest crocheting them as I did early on. It does require practice to form uniform, small chain stitches but even a rough and crudely made string seems to smooth itself out as it is worked into various figures.
The lengths (and thicknesses) of the strings become very important considerations when making figures. I usually give a set of four strings for any individual who wishes to learn. The beginning strings and the two loop Diamond set of figures are the ones you should start on, no matter what your level of understanding of string figures (or your age). The Diamonds are a fairly simple suite of figures, the forming of which teach a great deal about organization of effort and the particularizing of difference.
This is the initial “mathematics” of the experience and the lesson is completely learned fairly quickly, even by very young children. My daughter learned the Diamonds and the beginning weaves of Ten Men while riding with me to school each morning on a long bus ride to her day care center. She was three and a half years old at the time.
Searching for Strings
One of my prime problems when I began my experiments teaching strings to high school students was in providing them with strings. When I first began teaching string figures, I knew no other way to make strings than by crochet long strands of chain stitches, and then dove-tailing the ends together to make the circle. I had done this in order to make strings for myself when I first started my investigations.
The first figure I taught was ten men. The reason was two-fold. My left hand is weak and I couldn’t perform the pindiki extension, whereas the ten men extension was a snap for my hands; and the students, using my operational algebra, quickly began to explore the large possibility matrix of figures I outlined, so I didn’t have to spend all the class time bringing them up to speed on new figures. They each discovered many new ones on their own, and we could all share what we had chanced upon in our searchings.
I had gone to a Woolworth store (how long ago this was!) in my search for appropriate materials as I knew they had crochet hooks. They also had a thin cotton embroider floss which I could work with a number five hook. The only problem was that one packet of embroider floss made a string too short for my hands and ten men, especially since I wished to make three and four loop patterns. So I crocheted two lengths together and made a long thin string almost exactly two of my spans long. Within this simple beginning lay my penchant for long complex figures. I needed to fill up the string with information to get a proper rectangular area of the figure between my hands
Since there was a need for class room quantities, I crocheted long and hard. I also began searching for other materials to crochet. The thinness of these strings was a problem in the untangling of the figures, and it took forever to crochet each string.
I rather quickly found thicker embroider cotton in yarn stores (with more vivid colors!) and one of them would make a string approximately 1 1/2 of my spans. Moreover i could make three of them in the time it took to make one of the original 2 span skinny strings. I was in business, but the material was fairly expensive so i found I could buy French cotton in small balls in sizes 5 and 8. Three 5’s or two 8’s made an appropriate thickness and I could afford the 800 or so strings I needed for each semester. And that was my mainstay for several years.
As I was rolling merrily along teaching my ten men systems and openings, a friend of mine had begun trying to find ways for me to show the world what I could do with string figures. One of the things he did was to promise the International Center of Photography that I could give a lecture on Inuit String Figures in six weeks time. And he not only said I could do it, but negotiated a $200 honorarium for my time and trouble. Well, I found myself in an interesting situation, and ran to get help.
I went to the Museum of the American Indian at 155th and Broadway and found that they had a library in the north Bronx which might have some books on string figures as formed by the Native Americans, including the Inuit. I went up there on the subway and found a book which had a record of an expedition into Inuit country in the 3 years 1916-19 by Diamond Jenness, and in this record was the description of 229 string figures he had “collected” during this period. I learned about 20 of them in time and made my professional debut as a string figure expert and was warmly received by the audience.
But it was hard. It took me three days of almost day and night trying to finally make my first figure and know that I had formed it correctly. I had to master a technical language and then try to find out what Jenness had meant when he described a figure, such as he did with the fish net, which was the fourth figure I learned.
This figure intrigued me since it was a “web” like ten men was. So I began to experiment with it and quickly found that I could make inverse operations and form more complex figures with possibility matrices as I had done with ten men. But the strings required for the simpler figures had to be shorter than the ones needed for ten men. They could also be thicker in order to form the figures more esthetically. I found a soft thick German cotton yarn which crocheted into thick soft strings which were ideal for iterative North American Indian figures.
I then searched what literature I had (mainly Jayne) for “webs” and quickly found and mastered the Navajo many stars and the Klamath owl’s nest.
About this time I was contacted by Charles Moore of the mathematics department in Northern Arizona University. He was a string figure adept who had been teaching their manufacture as a mathematical exercise to young Navajos. He astounded me by sending a string that he made by welding a nylon braided line he used on his power boat. This is still my favorite string for classic figures, despite its “spring” and resistance to bending. It is also the one you see most often in my photographs.
I searched all over Manhattan and finally located a supply of weldable nylon string and never looked back. The string was a hard black solid nylon braid 3/64 inch in diameter which was very rough on the fingers and which took forever to be broken in so they would feel good on the hands. But my classroom problem was solved and I could give crocheted strings to students as rewards and colorful accessories to be worn on the wrists like bracelets. I eventually found sources for softer, weldable nylon and other poly-plastic strings for my students who appreciated the difference.
I continued to explore new sources of yarn for other types of figures. With my most ambitious ten men figures (the almost collapses of 8 and 9 weaves), I needed a more slippery string. I found beautiful floss silk embroider string in a specialty yarn store on the east side and saved my money for a while to buy a quantity which yielded 20 or thirty long strings which would blossom into beautiful figures even though long intricate weavings were being pulled out from wide spaced hands. Serendipitously enough I was contacted by the great grandson of Mathew Brady, the great Civil War photographer. He had been commissioned to come up with a television ad for Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. using string figures as a metaphor for forming networks. I told him about how sleek and colorful the silk strings were and he agreed to buy me 800 dollars worth if I could make him one of a suitable color. I chose turquoise and trained a hand model to form the Inuit net and the deed was done.
Man, I loved those silk strings, and as usual for me, I had given most of them away within a month or two. Now I use a less expensive, not quite as slippery, silk for my extra long strings.
I also began to mount figures onto boards. This required strings which didn’t stretch. I found linen was perfect for this use and located a source in a yarn store on the upper west side.
Then there was the store in Washington Heights which sold a half wool, half nylon yarn produced by the Germantown Mills in Philadelphia about 1950. The yarn was marketed to women who knit baby clothes and was ideal for this use, but the nylon content made it very expensive. This particular store was going out of business with a large inventory in the back of the store. I quickly had a lifetime supply at a good price. They made strings which were ideal for complex figures like the vertical net. The strength afforded by the nylon and the high coefficient of friction afforded by the wool made “blossoms” of superb symmetry and beauty.
I think we should keep in mind the four S’s of a string.
• Stiffness: For example my favorite string for making the heart figures is a solid braided nylon given to me by Charles Moore. It was made from a line he used on his power boat that he motored about Lake Mead or Lake Powell in Northern Arizona. It has a great deal of writhe built into it because of the torsion of the twisted braid used in its manufacture and it is quite stiff because of its solid construction. It is perfect for me to make traditional figures and my simple variants, i.e. not complex iteratives.
• Size: This string from Charlie is 1/8 inch in diameter.
• Surface: This is partly a function of sliding coefficient of friction. A hard nylon is more slippery than a soft cotton or a mixture of nylon and wool which I have crocheted. The figures form differently depending on this surface quality, especially the longer more complex figures. An extreme example is embroidered floss silk which blossoms spectacularly.
• Span: The string from Charlie is 1 1/4 of my spans (88 inches or 223.5 cms). The real measure of importance is the ratio of the size to the length (and my span should not be the unit for a string should, for most people, be shorter in order for the ratio of hand to string to be meaningful) I posit that for any given figure there is an optimum length, breadth, stiffness, and careful formation necessary for it to blossom.
All of my students became teachers of their families and friends. I had to work to keep up with strings enough for my students and their students.
I made a lot of them. I sent out a VCR tape recording of my doing string figures along with my computer printed writing on the subject, and strings, four sets of 120 each for the students in the Indian schools around the country and in Canada. So, another lesson is that one should find a source of strings which you can use and give to others. Crochet your own, get them from the string figure store and/or other places on the web which have them.
Care should be taken for the sizes you work with. After a while you gain the ability to estimate how long a string needs to be in order to blossom at the level of complexity you wish to employ. For the beginning diamonds perhaps one needs a span or a little shorter, though the complex variations will require longer strings. I think you should try ten men with a string of one and a half. Then gradually increase the length as you investigate three, four, five, and higher number of weavings.
The Inuit/Native American series should start with a string of one span or slightly longer, and expand the length as one needs in their exploring.
With a self confident and honest approach learning becomes easy and fun, rewarding; and the successes feed upon themselves. We all know this and recognize it in the “gifted” students but what we fail to instill in the young is the fact that they are all gifted students and should consider themselves that form the beginning. Prove it to them with success in something like string figures and you will have made them into self confident learning machines who will prosper in almost any environment that is organized to expose information and experience, books and teachers, tutors and classmates, in a relaxed social environment where a shared respect of others is exemplified first by the bonding over strings, and a true attention to be paid to each individual in the class. A teacher should have this class for the entire time the students remain in the school. This continuity is crucial.
The ability of the human animal to learn is astounding. It is a crime to keep the imagination in lockstep.
The students will help each other and practice together and this will afford a good learning experience since the most difficult part of string figures is learning the first figures. It reinforces the curiosity and drive necessary to learn anything, and it removes the barriers in the mind of doubt.