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


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