String figures are designs formed from nothing more than a loop of string. Most of the time, people use their fingers to weave string figures, but sometimes, they also use their toes, knees, elbows, and mouth. The result is often a fabulous pattern!
String figures were once known to nearly all native inhabitants of East Asia, Australia, Africa, the Arctic, the Americas and the Pacific Islands. In fact, some designs are believed to be ancient, perhaps dating from the stone age. Their function varied from place to place. In some locations, string figures provided a much needed artistic outlet — competitions were held to see who could make the most interesting design. In other locations, string figures were used by tribal storytellers to illustrate their tales. Elsewhere, string figures served as good luck charms to help ensure a bountiful harvest or a successful hunt. But in most locations, string figures were made simply to kill time!
The International String Figure Association (ISFA) was founded in 1978 by Hiroshi Noguchi, a Japanese mathematician and Philip Noble, an Anglican missionary stationed in Papua New Guinea. ISFA is a small, not-for-profit organization funded solely by membership dues and private donations. The primary goal of ISFA is to gather, preserve, and distribute string figure knowledge, so that future generations will continue to enjoy this ancient pastime. They also encourage the invention of new string figures, and enjoy sharing them with one another.
You need not be a scholar to join ISFA! Most of them are simply urban professionals who enjoy making, teaching, and reading about string figures. For many of them, string figures represent a healthy, inexpensive way to relieve tension and forget our troubles (ISFA member Gelvin Stevenson refers to them as “moving meditations”). The only requirement for joining ISFA is enthusiasm and a passion for making string figures!