by Martin Probert
We shall consider string figures to be of two types, modified and preconceived. These terms are not part of existing string figure literature, but have been introduced for the present article.
A string figure is made by performing a sequence of movements. New figures can be created by adding or removing movements, changing one or more movements, or changing the order of the movements. By way of analogy, we might experiment with changing the order of the letters in the word god to find that we get one valid word, dog, and several combinations that we reject, gdo, ogd, odg, and dgo. Or, beginning with sky, we might try and substitute a different letter at the end, giving us ski as a valid word and a host of combinations that we reject, ska, skb, and so on.
A glance at any collection of string figures reveals that this process has paid a large part in the creation of string figures. But with no technique to record the construction of such a figure, many figures so created must have become lost. Only a selection will have come down to us. Today the situation is different: the myriad variations of a given figure are easily recorded.
Just as an inkblot may resemble an octopus or tree, so a figure created by the process just described may acquire the name of some object familiar to the maker. But it is the figure which has appeared first, not the name.
A preconceived figure is one in which an idea for a final figure is first conceived, after which the maker creates a sequence of movements resulting in the figure. For example, the maker might conceive the idea of constructing a string figure cube, and then develop a sequence of movements which results in the cube. In this case the name appears first, and then the figure.
There are a few string figures in the literature which may conceivably have been created to realise some preconceived idea. It is clear, however, that the vast majority of collected string figures are not of this type.
Why do preconceived figures make such a poor showing in the literature? Three reasons suggest themselves.
The 21st-Century String Figures on this website are all examples of preconceived string figures.
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Copyright © Martin Probert 2005