Category Archives: Education

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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Filed under art, aspirations, Crafts, Education, Experience, innovation, society, Understanding

What is Creative?

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According to a recent government think-tank craftspeople can no longer be considered ‘creative’. Given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries they ‘classified’ a craftsperson as a ‘manufacturer who follows fixed procedures to produce articles by hand’. No creativity required! Having spent most of my life working in what I consider to be ‘creative industries’ I’m appalled, especially when the same report praises desk-dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants for their creative input. At a stroke my status is downgraded to unimaginative; lacking innovation, artistry or aesthetics. But hasn’t there has always been an element of snobbery towards makers who actually get their hands dirty?

I was brought up on the premise that it’s exemplary to make things by hand. When I studied at Art College William Morris remained the oracle and he believed that losing respect for the past meant the future was in trouble. Making is in our genes – from making food to making clothes, mankind learned hand-skills in order to survive. But hand-skills are developed through creative intellect passed down from master to apprentice, and Morris challenged Victorian industrialists for failing to recognise this fact.

For some archaeologists the humble sewing needle marks the most crucial advance for prehistoric societies. This simple tool allowed our ancestors to finally crawl out of their caves. Needles meant clothing fashioned from raw animal skins could be made to fit. And clothes that fitted made winter hunting expeditions more endurable. Better diet meant survival rates improved and life-spans extended, enabling clans to pass greater wisdom and experience onto the next generation. The beautiful paintings left in caves remain the only evidence of their life stories. And of their instinct for creativity.

It took thousands of years before primitive societies discovered how to farm in such a way they could sustain life without the need to wander. And it was no doubt during this period a wider range of craft skills were perfected. Whether making vessels to store water, or weaving textiles or tanning leather to make clothes, people were discovering how to manipulate whatever materials they discovered in order to improve their lives. Perhaps that’s why the current government boffins think crafts lack creativity, because we’ve been using these processes for a very long time. But even if societies did have to produce everything required to sustain life there’s nothing to say they didn’t enjoy the process, people who work with their hands are nothing if not resourceful.

Each stage of early intellectual development can be credited to a breakthrough in manufacturing techniques brought about by craftspeople. Without skills honed from manufacturing hand-crafted products the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Blame glassmakers on the island of Murano for the invention of spectacles. And Guttenberg was apprenticed to be a jeweller, that’s how he learned the techniques necessary to ‘create’ moveable typefaces.

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It might take a given set of procedures to make a product by hand, but craftspeople are perpetually innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and it’s in their nature to explore and experiment. But an experienced craftsperson does not separate the workings of the hand from the workings of the mind. There is no such distinction. Neither do they baulk at getting their hands dirty.

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Filed under aspirations, Crafts, Culture, Education, History, innovation, society

Spring Clean

February is not an easy month even in the best of years. In my corner of northern England it’s generally dark, and dreary, damp and cold. Spring hasn’t yet sprung although ice-white snowdrops carpet the hedgerows and sturdy-limbed lambs are leaping in the fields. It’s hard to get motivated.

New Year is a time of hope, a time to reflect and make plans – lots of reasons to be happy, lots of reasons to be thankful. While I trust everything will turn out for the best (in the best of all possible worlds) I haven’t put fingers to keyboard of late because I’ve been experiencing troubled times. But I belong to a generation that doesn’t think it proper to air their dirty washing in public

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Am I alone in thinking we’re not as tough these days? Perhaps that’s because we don’t have to be. Despite owning every labour-saving device invented for the job I know I’m not half the housewife my grandmother was. Her home was her dominion. She baked her own bread, grew her own fruits and vegetables and prepared every meal from scratch. And everything inside her cottage and garden was spick and span as she could make it. When I was a small child I watched in fascination as she draped all the rugs and carpets in her cottage across the washing line and beat them mercilessly with a special fan-shaped stick. Clouds of dust drifted across the fence to coat the neighbouring vegetable patch. Possibly that’s why old Mr. Forster always won Best in Show for his cabbages – no self-respecting moth feeds on dust-covered brassicas.

I also remember how Monday’s were devoted to ‘washing’. In gran’s house it was critical as attending Sunday Chapel, and equally sacrosanct. A huge galvanised tub was wheeled ceremoniously into the centre of the kitchen, the gas was lit underneath and while the water boiled everything deemed dirty was ‘cooked’, rubbed and then put through the wringer. The cottage steamed with coal-tar soap and we children knew to play outside as long as possible, whatever the weather.  Gran would apologise that dinner must be cold leftovers but the reason I dreaded washday most was because everyone was exhausted by the sheer physical effort involved.

Mrs. Forster and Gran

Mrs. Forster and Gran

I’ve only known automatic washing machines. Throw dirty clothes inside, fill the soap dispenser, turn the knob and get on with life. Clothes go from dirty to clean without so much as a whimper. And I’ve never beaten the carpets, Henry the Hoover does that, guided by any hand that happens to be home. I’m thankful that house-keeping is no longer viewed as woman’s work. My memories remind me how hard life could be but going to stay with gran felt cosy as a warm, soft blanket. She never, ever complained because no matter how tough her life seemed it was ten times better than her grandmother’s.

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Filed under Changes, Education, Family, History, Life, Roots, Spring, Tradition, Winter, Writing

Love Affairs

The Great Fire of London: 1666

I’ve always loved history. I think it stems from being curious how people lived their lives under different circumstances. Looking at the past is like unravelling a mystery. I peer into other worlds and wonder how I would cope. Working as a costume designer meant being involved in how the past was interpreted by other people but I’ve never held myself up as an expert, just someone who loves history.

So I wasn’t sure what to say when my daughter asked me to come into school and help the infants develop their studies on The Great Fire of London. I knew my two grandsons felt inspired by the project-work and already understood the most significant facts, such as where the fire began, and how. They’d even told me all about the diarist Samuel Pepys burying his precious cheese, just in case his house was engulfed by flames. What more could I add?

Women's work

I printed a selection of pertinent primary sources and gathered together a few books and maps to illustrate the topics I thought might be of interest. Then I discovered an animated film by a company called Pudding Lane Productions made by computer gaming students in response to a competition run by the British Library. The film lasts barely two minutes but gives a better visual description of Restoration London on the eve of the Great Fire than I could ever hope to reveal with books and papers. Beginning near Pudding Lane the animation sweeps through the city’s narrow streets and alleys, briefly gazing into houses to show the minutiae of everyday life; washing hung out to dry, braziers burning and candles lit – it’s packed with well-researched detail yet nothing nasty that could spark nightmares (the oldest child was seven).

Classroom technology being what it is we were able to start by showing the film. Then we asked what item they would save if they had to abandon their home in an emergency. While most opted to rescue their pets one little voice piped up to say he would take his iPad. When we pointed out that he wouldn’t have an iPad he persisted that indeed he ‘did have one’. This led to a discussion about what a seventeenth century home would or wouldn’t have, and of course it didn’t take long before we got to sanitary arrangements.

– Very few buildings had an indoor toilet, only bigger buildings like palaces and castles.

– Did people have to go to the castle when they needed a wee?

– No they would have to use something like a potty or, if they had a garden, a dirt-box.

– It must have been very smelly in London.

cheapsidehoard

I’d taken along some pictures of the Cheapside Hoard, jewels buried around this period, to illustrate the sort of things that might be buried for safe keeping. Almost as an afterthought I asked my husband if he could lend an item of jewellery to show the class and the ring he produced was actually made in the 17th century. It was very delicate, a fancy gold band mounted with two tiny, white enamel, love-birds set with minuscule emeralds, rubies and diamonds. However as the ring was handed carefully around the class the children became unusually quiet and I worried that they didn’t find it interesting enough to warrant any discussion.

Today I received twenty-three ‘thank-you’ letters, hand-written and beautifully illustrated. The only item mentioned, and illustrated, in almost every letter was the ring. It’s a mute point that history lies in an imagined world but being able to handle an object from that world somehow brings it to life. And I do think my grandsons are blessed to go to a school which believes that the class-room is just a beginning.

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Filed under Education, Family, History, Research