Open Thread: First Fun with String

I first learned cat’s cradle from other little kids on the playground in kindergarten. Through elementary school, yarn and string fads would sweep the playground. We’d do cat’s cradle, finger crochet, or string figures. Some other kid in Detroit taught me four-finger knitting.

Like hand-clapping games and jumprope rhymes, string figures are passed from young girl to young girl over decades and centuries. Older women teach these games too and of course also teach knitting, weaving, and other textile crafts. But think about how great it is that kids teach each other this complicated, geeky skill.

At some point I realized that most guys didn’t even know how to make a braid, much less the complicated ways to do fingerloop braiding, and that most women, and most girls, in the U.S. of my generation, could braid, single crochet, and do particular string figures. That seemed quite odd, since U.S. society hasn’t depended on women doing textile work by hand for many years. Yet it’s still ingrained very deep that it’s something we teach each other.

It strikes me we could learn something crucial, as geeky feminists, from the pattern of how knowledge is passed on between young girls, and how that is presented to them and by them as gendered knowledge – as something “girls know how to do”.

Single crochet is just making a loop with your fingers and thumb, and tying the same sliding knot over and over. It teaches the skill of maintaining tension on a strand. It’s easy enough to teach to a very small child, and it’s useful skill for life to make a weak cord into a stronger, thicker one.

Four-finger knitting seems a bit more rare in the world of playground games with yarn. I remember being absolutely fascinated with the way it worked, how the structure would evolve as it got longer, falling from the back of my hand like the rib cage and spine of a very long dinosaur, then would magically change to a knitted tube once I’d finish it and pull it taut.

Cat’s cradle I learned very early, maybe around 4 years old. Later, around 5th grade, I tried to make drawings of the possible configurations; the cradle, the manger, the candles, the diamonds, cat’s eye, and the other ones I didn’t have names for, and charts of how they connected to each other. It was hard to graph out, and now in poking around on the net, I don’t see any such graph. Let me know if you make one or find one! It is also interesting to find how-tos that try to develop a vocabulary like that of knitting to describe the actions and name the sections of the bits of string as they change.

Here’s some string figures I learned from other girls:

* Cat’s Whiskers
* Jacob’s Ladder
* Crow’s Feet
* Something I called “Pitchfork” but which is often done today as “Pick a banana”
* Handcuff (called “Hand Catch” here)
* Something I called “Pinwheel”.
* Cup and Saucer


What figures did you make? How did you learn them? Can you still do them, and do you teach them to anyone? What are the popular string figures of your childhood and culture? If you like, post a photo of yourself with it, or attempt to describe how it’s done!

22 thoughts on “Open Thread: First Fun with String

  1. Skud

    Oh wow… I was such a string-oriented kid. If you wanted to keep me quiet, you could sit me down with a few metres of string and I would amuse myself for ages. I learnt single crochet and a few cat’s cradle things from friends, actual crochet and knitting and making pom-poms from my Nanna, and taught myself some other things either by reverse-engineering or sketchy instructions in girl-oriented books. Eg. I figured out basic macrame by reverse eng, I think. When I was a bit older, teenage I guess, in Navy Cadets, I learnt decorative ropework and how to tie knots like turk’s heads, monkey fists, those mat-like ones you can use as doormats, etc. Still love that stuff!

    I’ve been teaching people to knit a bit lately… two friends f2f, and offering online support/hints/links to to various people on Dreamwidth where there seems to be a big uptake among DW devs mostly (I think) in response to this post of Denise’s and related discussions.

  2. Mackenzie

    My Mimi taught me to crochet when I was um…well I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know how. Certainly before preschool. She never learned to read a crochet pattern, so she taught me to reverse engineer patterns. Her sister taught me to sew and embroider. Years later, I taught myself to do counted cross stitch (stitching over X’s printed on fabric was how she’d always done it) and to read crochet patterns. Taught myself macrame eventually too. Hint: 12 strands (I think it was 12) of embroidery floss result in a very pretty bookmark.

    I’ve been taught to knit at least 5 times so far. Every time I stop to go to the restroom and come back, I’ve forgotten the motions already, though :( Something about looping it around and crossing between and then moving the needles some direction…

    But seriously, between my Mimi and her sister, they had me all trained to be a perfect housewife before I started Kindergarden. I could crochet, sew, embroider, and bake. Not too surprising, since she told my mom not to bother with college as it’s a waste on a woman who’s just going to get married and have kids (not that she could afford to send my mom to school anyway).

  3. thistleingrey

    I’d totally forgotten about four-finger knitting (or that it counts as knitting!)—thanks for that. My mother taught me cat’s cradle as well as how to knit simple garter-stitch rectangles and to do a bit of needlepoint; a friend in fourth grade taught me the four- (and three-) finger knitting. I think I extrapolated how to make a single-crochet cord, oddly.

    But it took till I’d just finished my undergrad degree and felt that I ought to read Austen for the first time, etc., for me to decide to learn from a book how to crochet. I started with thread because I wanted to tinker with radial symmetry, not make clothing. A couple of years ago, I picked up knitting (book + internet). My joints are hypermobile, so I hold things “wrong” to keep ± even tension, and I envy others’ smooth, quick movements—but the end results look all right…. :)

  4. koipond

    I totally loved cat’s cradle as a kid. I didn’t learn anything with string beyond that, but it was my grandmother who taught me. I spend a good long time with her as a youngin’.

    I’ve always been meaning to get around to learning how to knit and sew. I never get around to it, though I think I’m going to use this reference as a way to get into it. Kick my butt to pick up a book, or sit on the internet watching a video to learn.

    Strangely enough I spend a lot of time in an embroidery shop. I used to do their digitizing work which meant that I had to know how to separate good embroidery from bad embroidery. It was all done with machines, so it was all my fault if it messed up.

  5. Cesy

    I remember Cat’s Cradle! I can probably still do all the ones I learnt. Unfortunately that requires finding someone else who either remembers or is willing to be taught. I am tempted to go and play with some of those string figures now – I don’t know them all.

  6. Bene

    I had the Cat’s Cradle book/string set by Anne Akers Johnson as an elementary school kid, and enjoyed it a lot. Highly recommend that for anyone looking for a non-gender-specific gift for a youngun, I’m so glad to see it’s still in print! (Also had a big box of Hot Loops, but after the four finger knitting thing got a bit old, I ended up appropriating them for various projects.)

    Didn’t learn to ‘properly’ knit until I was in college, startlingly–knitting was and is a big thing at Smith. I’ve not sat down with my needles in over a week, I need to do that tonight.

  7. pam

    This is really interesting! I think you’re right that it’s something that “girls know how to do”; I remember that I was never as good at Cat’s Cradle as my classmates, and they taught me during recess (along with those hand-clapping games). We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and every new school was a new iteration of, “what do you mean, you don’t know how to do $thing?” I do still know how to make most of the string figures I learned.

    I knit (poorly) now, which was another interesting gendered journey for me; as we’ve aged, my group of friends is increasingly likely to split along gendered lines, with the guys playing World of Warcraft or some tabletop RPG, and the women gathering to knit. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, and will game with the guys sometimes (unless they are WoWing), but I’ll just as often hang out with the women. I finally cracked last year sometime and made them show me how to knit.

  8. laura

    So interesting! I actually learned most of the string figures I once knew not from other kids but from a book I found on a shelf in our home library when I was home sick and bored in fourth grade. It reminds me, now that I think of it, of how I learned HTML many years later, and of how I plug away learning little bits of one thing and another now.

  9. Havoc

    On the darker flip side of things, it’s also a way to exclude girls who don’t “belong” to the group. It’s a way of saying you don’t think someone is worthy of being part of the crowd of girls if your in-group doesn’t teach a less popular girl these things.

    Yes, I’m talking from experience. It was early training in asking for what I wanted, at least.

    I’m not trying to devalue your post, by the way, in case it sounds like that. I’m just trying to add another dimension. Yes, it’s a way of belonging, except some girls…just don’t belong.

  10. Valerie

    This brings me back! On my playground we also played “Chinese jump rope”, which was a big elastic band that would be woven in different shapes (from simple rectangle to much more elaborate cross patterns) around two standing girls. You’d then have to jump in and out of the pattern in a specific order to get to the next “level”. My mom taught me counted cross stitch and candle-wicking when I was very young, but I never bothered to learn crochet from her. I could still cross stitch, but I don’t know about candle-wicking.

    1. Liz Henry

      I played Chinese jump rope too, at a school where we didn’t have a playground, just some blacktop. It was Catholic school and the boys and girls were put into separate fenced off areas. Two girls held the elastic around their ankles, and the jumper would jump out, in, on, etc. I don’t remember the sequences!

      1. Skud

        We called it “elastics” and one of the sequences went: “England Ireland Scotland Wales, inside outside monkeys’ tails!” If you succeeded at a sequence, they would raise the elastic to knee height, then hips, waist, armpit, and neck height. At the higher levels I think you were allowed to use one pinky finger to pull the elastic down.

  11. textjunkie

    oh geez–I never learned more than Cat’s cradle and the clapping games (“behind the fridgerator…”), and a little of Chinese jump rope, from the girls at school. My mom taught me to knit (badly, but it’s still fun) and to crochet a straight line. I automatically start to loop string if I have some to fiddle with during long meetings. I can still knit, I just know better than to start yet another doomed project. ;)

    Interestingly, the serious knitters I’ve known were about 50% female and 50% male. They all claimed it helped them focus in class, to keep their hands busy.

    I have not, however, passed the training on to other women (or men). ;) I’ll have to show my nephews the cat’s cradle at some point!

  12. Heather

    I never learned more than basic cat’s cradle as a kid (growing up in the New Orleans area, my friends and I used to do it with Mardi Gras beads instead of string). None of us knew any string figures. I embroidered a fair bit as a kid, tho I picked that up myself rather than being taught – my female relatives were not crafty. Most yarn or string things I know I’ve either taught myself as an adult or been taught by my 10yr old son, who can knit and crochet and fingerknit and do all kinds of string figures.

    I do remember 4th to 6th grade or so, making tons of those friendship bracelet things that you do by tying knots in rows with different colors of embroidery floss. The knots make diagonal stripes. I wonder if kids still do those.

    1. Skud

      I don’t know about kids, but I’ve seen them in handcraft stalls in markets in the last year or two.

      The knots are half hitches, and you do two half hitches on each warp (for want of a better term) for a bracelet that lies flat, or one half hitch for one that curls. I used to be pretty expert at them and could do all kinds of designs with diamonds and crosses and patterns and stuff, up to about 1″ wide, using DMC embroidery floss.

  13. Dorothea Salo

    Okay, let’s see who can outweird this:


    It was the only hand embroidery I was at all good at. Tried cross-stitch, was horrible at it. Quilting, even worse. But little knots I could do.

      1. Liz Henry

        Oh, god, I did endless, mindless rug hooking. Why!!! With the grossest yarn, too.

        I’ve never learned to knit and now it hurts my hands to try, so I’ll just be a wistful groupie on the rest of y’all.

      2. Mackenzie

        Ooooh yeah! I hooked rugs too. Wow…See this is why I think starting a company catering to textile lovers would be more fun than staying in tech. So much to do!

  14. kath

    nice. I used to do these as a kid too. & other fibre craft. mostly knitting again these days. but on my last trip to Auckland I found/bought a book called “The String People of Nauru Island” – they show you different shapes and the history of it. just found it on google books

  15. Rose

    Do any of you know the book “String Figures and How to Make Them” by Caroline Furness Jayne? Here’s the description at Google Books: “Fullest, clearest instruction on string figures from wide variety of cultures around the world: Eskimo, Navajo, Lapp, Europe, many others. Create such imaginative figures as a cat’s cradle, a moving spear, a bolt of lightning, pointed stars and much more. 950 illustrations.” (I think that’s the back-cover copy from Dover, where the book’s been available for decades.)

    Nearly every hardcore geek I’ve ever known has owned a copy, particularly if they were math-minded; I just saw (and bought) a copy at a used bookstore in Mountain View in case Liz or Skud would like a look-see.

    1. Liz Henry

      That’s a great book! A while back I went through and learned some of the figures, but they’re not in my fingers the way childhood ones are.

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