String figure making is practiced by cultures around the world, but finds its highest form of artistry among Inuit of North America. Inuit string figures—sometimes referred to as ‘cats cradles’— are traditionally made by weaving braided sinew or seal skins into intricate designs around the fingers of one or multiple people.
From Alaska to Greenland, Inuit have used string figures for centuries as a form of entertainment and game, but also a way to tell stories, pass knowledge along to younger generations, and build tactile dexterity. Each regional Inuit group has its own distinct traditions of string figure making. While many string figures are shared by multiple groups, each group has its own interpretation of their name and meaning. Among Inuinnait, string figure making is used as a game and tool for teaching, but also acts as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. Each string figure has its own spirit that determines when and how the figure should be made.
Between 1914-16, anthropologist Diamond Jenness created the first comprehensive documentation of Inuinnait string figures, recording his findings in a report published in 1924. In this book, he identifies 83 string figures shown to him by Inuinnait. While many of these figures were shared by Inuit groups to the east and west, 25 of the figures were entirely unique, and not otherwise found outside the Coronation Gulf. In 1923, explorer Knud Rasmussen additionally documented a series of Inuinnait string figures during his Fifth Thule Expedition.
Wanting to recreate these string figures ourselves, and share how-to with other Inuit and non-Inuit, we began collaborating with Stephan Claassen, a researcher in the Netherlands specializing in the study of Inuit string figures. Stephan has been creating string figures since 2008, and has published multiple collections of string figures from the Arctic, Papua New Guinea and Europe, including contributions to a revised version of Diamond Jenness’ 1924 book on Inuit string figures.
Inside this collection, you’ll find a series of Inuinnait string figures, recreated by Stephan, each with a step-by-step guide on how to make them: