Tag Archives: Design

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.


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?






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

Creative Hands

My husband is a jeweller and for thirty years we have run a small Cumbrian gallery, complete with manufacturing workshop, where precious jewellery is produced and sold.

Recently an elderly gentleman marched through the gallery door and demanded to see The Jeweller. Our young assistant was reticent, particularly as it was her job to look after the customers without disturbing the workshop.

– He’s very busy. Something urgent has to be finished before lunch.

The man was determined.

– It won’t take up much time, I’d just like to see if he’s a real jeweller.

The jeweller, being duly fetched and not in the best temper introduced himself politely.

– Show me your hands.  The man said. – Only last place I went to the so-called jeweller’s hands were white as snow. He may ‘ave been a craftsman but I could see those hands hadn’t done a day’s labour.

Dumbfounded my husband put out his hands. Thirty years at the bench have taken their toll, the grime of polishing compound set into needle-saw scars, nails blackened from working the metal.

– Aye, you’ll do. The man said. I can see you’re a real craftsman.

With that he proceeded to order a special hand-made ring.


          Although we specialise in jewellery it is probably true of any craft that the hands define the maker. If you studied a potter’s hands, or a weaver’s, their ‘battle-scars’ would differ from those of a cabinet-maker or jeweller yet the hands tell a unique story because every craft has its specific methods and tools. A maker performs a wide variety of processes, any of which can leave their mark. Some are transient – most dyes fade in time – some everlasting, generally signifying a failure in that unique hand to eye co-ordination.

Craftspeople use their hands as an extension of their imagination. The object he or she makes may be entirely functional but it is still made to be loved. For many makers the desire to create is as intrinsic as breathing, and as necessary.

When we speak of a piece being hand-crafted we hope it will be enjoyed for the quality of its making but modern craftsmanship is complicated by so many different definitions it’s hard to pin down a simple response. When does a work of craft become an art form? A craftsman is a manufacturer so whatever he or she makes has to represent beauty of purpose, whereas a work of art does not have to have any purpose other than to entertain.

Being ‘hand-made’ is implied as a definition of quality, a nod of respect towards the maker, but it is only in relatively modern times that a ‘craft’ has been presented in the same light as a work of ‘art’. Traditionally craftsman remained obscure, even when their work was highly respected. And many gifted craftspeople would prefer to keep it that way, and let their work speak for them.

During Victorian times the concept of craftsmanship became synonymous with the ideas of John Ruskin. His writings inspired William Morris to form the Arts and Crafts Movement, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him…..Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them….” (The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin)

In many respects our ‘computer age’ is similarly threatening the status given to objects which are ‘hand-made’. Many people have no concept of the time and skill it takes to make something by hand, no patience for processes which are not instantaneous. Happily there remain customers who still believe in the words of William Morris and his band of gentle revolutionaries, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.


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