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!