Category Archives: art

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?

class-in-dressmaking

 

 

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The Artist

It was no more than a garret. Pitched windows cast mute sunlight. Seasons of grime danced with dust. Marooned by forsaken canvases the artist posed at his easel, far too engrossed to acknowledge visitors. Ardent fingers stroked muddy gouache into a sullen landscape. It was his agent’s suggestion they should throw open the studio so patently the little man should take full responsibility for clients.

Pierre, clad in simpering Sunday best, was steering an elegant woman through the shambles, taking particular care her generous skirts didn’t engage with discarded canvases. The silly man never did recognise when a painting was finished and dry.

‘My mother thought herself something of an artist.’ The client had an elegant voice, symptomatic of her class. ‘An unfortunate obsession.’

Pierre was nodding respectfully. ‘Artists! Such passion?’ And keen to illustrate the virtues of his young protégée poised in front of a glowering masterpiece.

The woman’s flamboyant millinery concealed the look on her face but studying the picture closely she enquired. ‘What is the subject?’

‘Notre Dame. It is early morning; mist is rising from the river.’ Pierre had become well-versed in avant-garde techniques.

‘I see nothing but fog.’ Grey dust swirled as their client marched towards the next canvas.

The artist didn’t stir from his easel, being posed in the far corner. Closing his empty eyes he tossed fronds of tousled dark hair from his fore-head, and brooded. Discarded underfoot, like flotsam on a beach, were the charcoal sketches of blurred memories never destined to become art.

‘And what is the theme of this study?’ The relentless woman had manoeuvred behind the artist in progress.

‘The church of Sacre Coeur at dawn…’ Pierre began confidently.

But the lady interrupted. ‘And has the artist ever availed himself of taking the air at dawn?’

‘The artist prides himself on beginning every study en plein air.’ Vigilant in his praise.

‘Yet another study of Paris in fog?’ She waved a gloved hand dismissively.

The artist applied paint with such passion his easel screamed across the floor. He wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t give the client that pleasure.

After an agonizing pause she continued. ‘I find Paris too indulgent of artists with a fascination for fog.’ The pitch of her voice rose to an unremitting crescendo. ‘They must persist in starving until they comprehend how these bland creations fail to inspire.’

Pierre looked forlornly towards his artist. Spine rigid, head otherwise engaged, he laid down his brush and took up a knife.

Derwentwater winter

Good manners being integral to business Pierre remained impeccably polite. He escorted their client downstairs and out into the street. Only then, concerned for his artist, did he run briskly back up to the garret, more than slightly out of breath.

‘Madam was over-critical, please don’t be dispirited.’

Laying down his knife the young man stepped back from the easel, wiping his paint-swabbed hands on a rag while considering his latest creation.

Pierre shook his head sympathetically. ‘Of course we are bound to attract the curious, those whose interest is not entirely aesthetic.’

‘Oh she never intended making a purchase.’ The artist’s attention remained set on peeling paint from each awkward finger.

A sudden perception engrossed the agent. ‘You’ve met the lady before?’

And turning from his ruined masterpiece the artist brandished a smile. ‘That lady was my mother.’

February 2012

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