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.
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?
The official period of recovery is over and I’m back to the day job and wondering where on earth summer has gone. While time is tightly spliced with family and work and trying to batter the garden into some sort of order and failing I feel I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, exchanging the luxury of time spent reading and writing with the need to do things I couldn’t attempt during convalescence. It’s not a bad thing, taking a step back, but being recovered I’m finding it harder to justify. As soon as there’s space in my schedule I notice something else that must be done and recent weeks have flown by without much time for writing.
Anyway I decided to seek inspiration by reading some of my fellow writers’ blogs. Last week the Crimson League (http://crimsonleague.com) had an interesting article about creating successful characters using something called the Myers-Briggs type. This device for assessing character came as a complete revelation but rather than discovering how to improve on writing about people I discovered something fundamental about myself. For those unfamiliar with psychology it basically suggests our character is divided into four dominant forces – sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking – and that only one of these functions can dominate most of the time.
‘The third continuum reflects the person’s decision preferences. Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers%E2%80%93Briggs_Type_Indicator
Revelation! Now I understand every bad decision I’ve ever made. The very fact I act on feelings renders me incapable of making rational decisions. And for years I’ve been blaming mother! Freud eat your heart out, I should have been looking to Jung.
Mum and me
Only recently I’ve come to realise the very practise of creative writing is quite absurd. Putting words into a sequence in which they can be recognised and interpreted by a reader to such an extent they can impose the same images into their imagination is completely illogical when you really think about it. Why not just stick to pictures? Words are a form of code, and the essence of a code is that it requires translation and excludes those who cannot understand. When a writer puts a story into words the anticipation is that whoever reads that story will comprehend what is being described but it’s impossible to know what feeds the imagination. I believe the real art of writing is explaining enough that the reader is transported to another time and place – every scene must have a setting –while giving no more detail than required. I have to trust that readers (like writers) have very active imaginations but what if they have no personal experience of the time and place involved? What really breathes life into a story is something far beyond words.
I write about the past because I love history. I enjoy unravelling the uncertainties of a time I can never experience. History is mystery but I can become so completely lost in researching my subject that the stories slide further and further from completion. While I prefer to have some semblance of reality I can never describe the past as real, however delicious or detailed the research. So how can I make something that only exists in my imagination come alive through words?
Ring found buried in the garden at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon.
I feel like the traveller who, having got lost, asks directions from a local only to be told they are starting their journey in the wrong place. Perhaps I should turn to writing about the future? With the tramlines of the past erased there is total freedom to invent. Actually that’s rather scary and never forget the very first Star Wars movie begins with the words – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – George Lucas framed his tale in history, not science fiction! Projecting into the future may seem a very good way of escaping the present but I doubt anyone would be interested in my fantasies. Some believe Shakespeare’s Tempest was the first work of science fiction but I’d rather have my stories rooted in actual events because, as they say, truth can be stranger than fiction.