The Lister List

String Figures 1

David Phillip's enquiry about whether anyone else has an interest in string figures (or cat's cradles) evokes an immediate response from me! I'm even less able when it comes to constructing string figures than I am about folding paper, but I have a deep interest in the subject, dating from the days when my younger sister used to spend hours weaving some of the more common designs. I was never much good at it myself, although I did manage to learn one or two patterns. However, they would never "stick" in my memory. Cat's cradles are even more transitory than paperfolds.

Then when I was at University, I found Kathleen Haddon's little booklet:"String Games for Beginners" in a bookshop and I became fascinated. Her father was A.C.Haddon, the great anthropologist, who thought that the native string games that were found among many native tribes throughout the world would be important for establishing cultural relationships. It never worked out quite like that, but anthropologists remain interested in string figures.

I began to collect books on the subject (just as I collected paperfolding books) and now have about sixty titles. (Nothing like the number of my origami books). Then Eric Kenneway came to visit me, because he had managed to arrange a visit to Japan and thought it would be helpful if he could look at my Japanese Origami books, if only to be able to tell the authors if he bumped into them in Japan that he had seen their books! Eric was sidetracked by my books on String figures, particularly those by Kathleen Haddon, and he

listed those too, merely out of curiosity. Sure enough, however, and wholly unexpectedly, Eric met not only paperfolders, but also cat's cradlers, when he got to Japan. In particular, he met Seishiro Yuasa, who had written one or two books on the subject in Japanese. The Japanese interest in cat's cradles had only just started, but they had already improved the notation for the subject. Hitherto, the subject had not been very strong in Japan. There were, as far as I know, no "native" varieties.

Eric told Seishiro about my books and Seishiro was most interested. It seems he had been searching for books by Kathleen Haddon, but had been unable to find them. So, out of the blue, I received a letter from Japan, not about Origami, but about string figures.

Through the anthropology department at Cambridge, I was able to trace Kathleen Haddons's son Henry Rishbeth and he gave me permission to photocopy her books to send to Japan for Seishiro Yuasa. A few months later Seishiro came to Euope and I had the pleasure of escorting him and his friends round London. They even tried steak and kidney pudding in the typically English restaurant that |I found for them, but it was much too heavy for their delicate Japanese tastes!

The story was by no means over .Philip Noble of the British Origami Society was (and is) an Anglican priest. I met him at the Japanese Embassy in London on the occasion of a reception for Akira Yoshizawa during his first visit to Britain (1971, I think it was). He told me that he and his family were going to Papua New Guinea as missionaries. I told him I didn't think he was likely to find much paperfolding there, but he agreed with me that there might

possibly be cat's cradles. And so it turned out to be. Philip turned himself into an expert on String Figures and collected the local versions, later compiling them into an academic book. I introduced him to Seishiro Yuasa, who visited him in Papua New Guinea. I also got permission to send Philip copies of Kathleen Haddon's books They were good training manuals..

Seishiro went on to Australia to meet Honor Maude, the grand old lady of string figures in the Pacific. So a wonderful link-up evolved between cat's cradlers in Japan, Australia and Britain. I hoped it would develop in the same way that Origami had done, but, although there was some growth, there was never the same explosion that had taken place among paperfolders.

Another of the Japanese String Games enthusiasts was Hiroshi Noguchi. He has now written many books on the subject.. He formed the (Japanese) String Figures Association. Later Philip Noble collaborated with him and they produced an English version of the yearly Journal of the Association. This was sent without payment to the few western enthusiasts then known. It was a very short list and I often thought that the String Figures Association must be one of the most exclusive societies in the world! Hiroshi would never

accept any contribution to finances. Eric Kenneway was a member, and I ensured that Henry Rishbeth was made a member, too, but there were very few others in Europe, Britain or the United States.

Slowly, others became interested, including Mark A Sherman of Pasadena, California. Eventually, the time came when Hiroshi Noguchi decided that he wanted to hand over the reins. In 1994, Mark Sherman took over The International String Figures Association and organised it on a more professional basis, with regular membership and a proper subscription.The Associaltion now issues an annual Journal and a bennial newslatter "ISFANews"

The bibliography of string figures is enormous and another American Tom Storer has issued a liong list of books, which he updates from time to time.

Just as in paperfolding, "Creative" cat's cradling has been introduced and experts are now creating their own figures, as well as finding out how to weave those traditional figures which were drawn by anthropologists in their completed form, but without any instructions for making them.(This is rather more difficult than copying most origami models).

The address is: International String Figures Association, P.O. Box 5134, Pasadena, California, 91117, USA.

Telephone: (213) 214 7333. Fax: (818) 305 9055.


World Wide Web:

The subscription is twenty-five dollars per year .New members are eagerly awaited!

If annyone would like any more information about String Figures, I shall be pleased to help as far as I can.

Yours with tangled fingers,


(David Lister, Grimsby, England) 

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