Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Mathematics of Dressmaking

When I worked in London one of my skills was to make patterns. At the time I was working for a company that produced very expensive one-off coats and each pattern was made to fit an individual customer. Our clients were mostly the rich and famous who didn’t have time to do more than one fitting so my patterns had to be accurate. When I began it wasn’t my area of expertise but I enjoyed the challenge and having made clothes since I was six it didn’t seem difficult although my boss called my method ‘applied guesswork’.

Most people are familiar with commercial dress-making patterns, flimsy tissue-paper sheets which are highly inaccurate and produce mixed results. I’ve had terrible failures with such patterns and when you’ve spent a fortune on beautiful fabric it’s really sad to find the result of your labours isn’t wearable. So I can sympathise with Sir Christopher Zeeman, emeritus professor of applied mathematics. When he couldn’t find a dressmaker to make a dress for his wife with the piece of hand-woven silk he’d brought from Thailand (it wasn’t long enough) he decided he would make it himself.

dressmaking

First he measured his wife carefully and worked out her ‘area’ in square inches. He’d never made a dress before and thought a sleeveless summer dress with a simple princess line would be the most simple to design and make. Luckily he produced a mock-up using an old sheet, because it all went horribly wrong.

I was particularly intrigued by the negative curvature at the small of the back.’ He said when discussing the problems during a lecture at Gresham College. ‘I slowly began to realise that I did not yet understand the basic mathematical problem of how to fit a flexible flat surface round a curved surface.’

Being ‘mathematical’ he decided he would analyse the best means to produce the necessary ‘fitted’ effect and discovered what a dressmaker calls a ‘dart’. Then, after a long and well-reasoned study of darts, he decided to write a mathematical equation that could provide the correct ratio required for a perfect fit – ‘the first approximation is to assume that the cross-section at the hips is a circle of radius r, and that at the waist is a smaller circle of radius r-x. Hence the hip to waist ratio is 2π(r-x).

But then he encountered the ‘different vertical asymmetry’ between his wife’s back and her front. No more negative curvature, in fact there was the added problem of a bust. Subsequently he had many sleepless nights considering the best way to finish the dress because ‘there was a deep topological obstruction, analogous to the impossibility of unknotting a knot.’

Lady Zeeman commented that her husband so enjoyed his delve into the mathematics of dressmaking he worked on several projects, still in frequent use.

My point being that many English schools dropped the teaching of dressmaking when the National Curriculum decided in favour of more ‘technical studies’ such as computer skills but perhaps they would have been better taking Sir Christopher’s approach to problem solving?

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Loaded Secrets

So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.

During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.

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The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.

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HMS Dasher on Convoy Duty in the North Atlantic, picture from the collection of Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR.

On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.

At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.

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Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.

By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.

The sinking of HMS Dasher

All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.

But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.

Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.

There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.

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Filed under Disaster, endurance, Family, History, Memories, Past, Scotland

Secrets

Raffles estate, Carlisle, late Saturday night.

Mary (not her real name) hears a heavy knocking on her front door. In her eighties and recently widowed she takes a long time to reach the entrance and slot the safety chain into the frame. She’s lived on the estate all her life and knows its dangers too well. Her eyes struggle with the darkness and she can barely believe her eyes when she sees two bulky men in uniform standing to attention on her doorstep.

Clearly they’ve come to the wrong address. They’re wearing identical smart black uniforms but speak with strange foreign accents. Surely can’t be police.She asks them to wait while she phones for her son. Looking out of her window she sees their car; bigger and blacker than the Daimler hired for her husband’s funeral. And there’s a flag on the bonnet, she can just make out the colours under the street lights – red, white and blue.

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Her son arrives in minutes. Known as the local enforcer his legend is usually enough to keep anyone from messing with his mum.

Aware the neighbour’s curtains are twitching he invites the strangers inside. He can barely believe it when they announce they’ve come from Moscow with a special honour for his dad. What exactly did his dad do in the war?

In a brief ceremony they present his mum with the highest honour for bravery that the Russian people can award, to a foreigner – the gold star.

As soon as the Russians leave he sits his mum down, makes a cup of tea and fires off questions. All his mum remembers is that his dad spent half the war in prison, up in Scotland. Well a sort of prison, it was really an internment camp.

But his dad was English to his bones. What on earth had he been doing that condemned him to spend half the war in prison? Was he spying for the Russians? That couldn’t be right surely.

Next day he looked through his dad’s papers, discovering that he’d served in the Merchant Navy before the war began. So what led to him being arrested? Nothing in the boxes of photographs and faded documents explained this time in prison.

That’s when he asked if I could do some research. And I discovered a dark secret that the government tried very hard to hide. So much so that everyone involved spent the rest of the war in an internment camp. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.

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Destined to never sleep

A week from the finish of our loft conversion. I had been looking forward to achieving some sense of a ‘normal’ marriage after sleeping separately from Jake for 2 years.  And looking fo…

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