String games and string stories have existed as long as humans have been telling stories. Around the world, in every culture, there is a long tradition of using a simple string to play games, to accompany song singing, fortune-telling, and to narrate mythologies as well as everyday stories. Each culture’s string figures vary from simple to incredibly complex. In this blog, we will explore many aspects of string stories including the background across traditions of using string as part of storytelling, some of the most popular string figures, how to make a few of those string figures and discuss some stories that are told with string as an integral part of the narrative. This blog will also present ideas how to incorporate string stories into a program for children, as well as introduce a couple of notable string storytellers.

Historical Background

Very old string figures have been preserved from near extinct and remote cultures due to the initial efforts of anthropologists Dr. A.C. Haddon and Dr. W.H.R. Rivers who in 1898 introduced a standardized language to describe the movement of the strings. Other anthropologists used their new language of describing the steps to make string figures during anthropological travels and these subsequent cultural scientists were able to reproduce and published the final figures. Not all the figures have instructions on how to achieve the final figure and, in fact some of the figures still have no solution. (Jayne, 1962).

This is one of the original figures drawn by the two anthropologists.

Retrieved from,_No._160/Gilbertese_astronomy_and_astronomical_observances,_by_Arthur_Grimble,_p_197-224/p1

Here is an example of a complicated string figure made by Inoli Murphy called Navaho Many Stars. Retrieved from

Many cultures treat string figures as a puzzle game. It is a source of great entertainment. Some are so skilled at making them that they can reproduce a figure in just a few minutes without looking to see how it was made. In fact, string figures are such an integral part of Pacific Islander life, particularly of the people of the Gilbert Islands, that they must learn string figures to be prepared for the afterlife. They believe that their souls will have to successfully make a succession of string figures in order to gain entry from the underworld guide, Na Ubwebwe, to pass to the afterworld. (Fleishman, 2000). String figures are also used as passwords, blessings for good crop growth, and fortune-telling (Darsie, 2003). There are also string competitions where families on Easter Island are judged on the story or chant accompanying the kai kai string figure. They are also judged on other aspects too such as finger dexterity and creativity. (Stotter, 2009).

String figures are used to represent different scenes in local mythology. For example, in New Zealand, the string figures from what we call cat’s cradle are scenes from stories such as Mother night Hine-nui-te-po, giving birth to her children, as well as from the story of the god hero Maui, fishing the land, and the Lightning God Tawhaki going up to heaven (Jayne, 1962). These kinds of stories, using string to draw the picture, are also accompanied by song chants.

The string loop can made from different materials depending on the culture. Reindeer sinew, the inside of bark, leather thong, fibers from the hibiscus tree and even braided human hair are all materials used to the make the string. (Gryski, 1985). In modern times, the string is made of nylon cord. Nylon is strong yet thin and cheap. One does not even have to make a knot in order to make the loop. One can melt the two ends and join them together just so to create a loop with a smooth surface consistent surface throughout.

The movement of the fingers across the string or a certain twist of the string is matched with the right choice of word, song, or chant. In some stories, the string is moving the entire time during the storytelling, while in others, the string is still except at precise moments during the story when the string is brought back into action. The timing of the movement (or lack thereof) of the string with the voice, tone, pitch, facial and body language can dramatically affect the success of the storytelling. Many times the next figure is made from the present figure so the flow of string figures from one to the next matches the story perfectly.

Watch how this storyteller uses her voice, pacing and the string in this classic Eskimo story about the string competition between a boy and the god Totanguak.
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How to make a string figure

Making the string figure requires a long piece of string. The best kind is a braided piece of twine or polyester. A one yard piece will suffice once the ends are tied together to form a 18 inch loop. The loop is the basis for all string figures. (More complicated figures require much longer strings.) Making the string figure requires knowledge of some string terminology. The figure below shows the names of the fingers and the string. When a string is around a finger, it is called a loop. If the loop is around the thumb, for example, then the loop is called the thumb loop, and so on for the other fingers: index, middle finger, ring finger, and little finger. The loop has two sides when it is looped around a finger- the side of the string closest to you is called the near string while the string farther from you is called the far string. Sometimes a finger will have multiple loops in which case the loops are named lower and upper loops. If the string is across the palm, it is called the palmer string. Most string figures start from a few simple base figures. The basic starting position of the hands are upright and facing each other, like you are about to put the hands together to pray. Movement of the fingers around the string also have some special names. Dropping or releasing a string means to take the loop off the finger. Navaho loops means that when there are two strings looped on a finger, you must take the lower string and bring it over the finger.

Sharing a loop means to take the another loop from a different finger, then pull the string across to the other finger so two fingers share that loop. Extending the figure is sometimes the most dramatic ending to a figure. Extending means to pull the hands apart so the string is stretched taunt. Usually when this is done, the figure suddenly becomes apparent. (Gryski, 1995). Sometimes the teeth, mouth, wrists, legs, elbows, and feet are also used to assist in making the final figure.

Watch how string storyteller David Novak uses his head, teeth, mouth, even ears to creatively hold the string figure in the classic European tale, Jack and the Beanstalk. Retrieved from

Opening A is the most common starting figure.

Opening A retrieved from

String figures are used to illustrate a story or to show movement within the story. String figures’ complexity varies widely. A beginner string storyteller should start with just one simple figure and a short easy story. It takes much practice because a string storyteller must be able to make the correct figure in the correct time in correct way without compromising the pacing of the story. From there, he can try incorporating more figures and more complicated and longer stories. Once he has memorized the steps well enough, he should be able to make the figures from muscle memory, without having to think too much about it. A good storyteller may not even to look at his figure when he is in the process of making it so that he can maintain eye contact with the audience and keep them engaged.

Just as storytellers should pay attention to the background of their storytelling environment, so should a string storyteller. In fact, it is more important here to pay attention to how well the color of the string contrasts with the color of the clothing, the ambient lighting, and  amount of clutter in the background. One can also match the color of the string to the object you will be making. For example, use a green string for a caterpillar figure, or a brown string for a horse. Abstract figures can use the multicolored nylon string that are sold in toy shops.

This is a picture of master storyteller Barbara Schutzgruber showing the string figure witch’s broom or fish spear (depending on the culture) in yellow string contrasting against her black shirt. 2012. Retrieved from

Popular String Figures

Cat’s cradle is a string game found in different parts of the world. In Japan, it is called aya ito tori, in New Zealand, it is called He whait or maui. in other parts of the world, this popular game is called “well-rope” and toeka-toeka. (Jayne, 1962). To play, there must be two players. The image below shows the hands of the two players.

Figures are made when the string is transferred in various ways to the other player forming new figures in the process. Many stories can be made up on the spot depending on the culture and individual interpretation of the figures made. The names of figures from the cats cradle game range from rice mill pestles in Korea, to soldier’s beds in England, to sea snakes in New Guinea. (Jayne, 1962). In the US, the sequence string figures are as follows: cradle, soldier’s bed, candles, manger, diamonds, cat’s eye, fish on a dish, hand drum, diamonds, cat’s eye, manger, sawing motion, and cat’s cradle. (Taylor, 2000). See the video below. Retrieved from

Jacob’s ladder is an intermediate string figure that requires at least ten steps. At certain points during those steps, one may be able to deviate from the sequence and form other figures like the witch’s hat, cup and saucer and the Eiffel Tower.

Here is the pictorial step by step tutorial on how to make Jacob’ ladder

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A String Story told across the world

A popular string story involves the figure of the stolen yams. The hand is held in a horizontal position and the string is wound about the fingers in such a way so that when the leftover string hanging at the bottom is pulled, the whole string figure slips off the hand without any knots. This trick is seen in all corners of the globe including Africans, American Indians, and Eskimos. This version of the story is from the Torres Strait. The yam patch farmer has been working hard all day and has fallen asleep in his patch. A thief comes by and avoiding the farmer, starts to steal the yams, putting them away into bags, neatly lined up one after the other. The farmer wakes up and feels that something has gone wrong so he starts looking around. The farmer sees his yams crammed into the bundles, tied up tightly. Quick! Before the farmer can react, the thief takes off running, grabbing the bags of yams along the way! (Helfman, 1965).

This is the final form of the stolen yams figure. All that is needed is to pull down the string at the bottom which will complete the story.

In the handbook String Stories (Holbrook, 2002), the same stolen yams figure is used to tell a different story involving a family of mice. The story is copyright by Storytellers International in 1993, written by Norma J. Livo. As you loop the string around each finger, the storyteller tells of the characteristics of each member of the family of mice including the father mouse, mother mouse, and so on. Then when all four fingers have been looped in a specified way, the story continues about the family of mice coming upon a block of cheese. But right then, the cat jumps out at them and the family scurries away to their hole, squeaking all the way. String stories mentions a couple other stories with different characters, again using this same string trick.

String Stories in Education

Garofalo, R. Strings on your fingers. Retrieved from

Children are fascinated by using an ordinary piece of string to create complicated patterns. Using the fingers and one or more hands to guide the string’s movement on the child’s hands, children can be taught to make their own figures. Once the figures are mastered, the children can be encouraged to create their own stories using the figures. The storytelling is incredibly interactive, especially if the figures are inherently interactive and abstract, which makes it open to interpretation. However, be warned that children should never hang the loop of string around their necks as it is a choking hazard. An entire program can be created based on the string storytelling. A string storyteller can be invited to tell some string stories and then each child can be given a piece of string. The storyteller or librarian can teach the children how to make their own simple string figures. Library materials on the topic can be brought out and the children can take home their string. Empowering children to create their own story teaches them analyze the pictures they see in the string and creatively and imaginatively apply the the pictures to their own original story. It would also be a fun event!