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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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Today my eldest grandson will have completed his first year at school. He is five years old. He came home yesterday armed with a handful of certificates and rewards and I think it’s safe to say he’s enjoyed attending classes. The worst hurdle was school dinners but that’s another story, his tastes buds are highly sensitive and some foods ‘scare’ him.

 

Our village school teaches fifty pupils who begin in reception, aged 4, and stay until they finally pass onto secondary school when they’ve turned eleven. It’s the same school my children attended and although the buildings have been extended to accommodate a pre-school nursery and a state of the art technology room, little seems to have changed in twenty years.

 

Last week parents and grandparents (and great grandparents) gathered to watch and encourage the competitors at the school’s annual Sport’s Day. Many families have lived in this community for generations and there was a big turnout, especially given a beautiful summer’s day and the promise of cream teas. The children were formed into teams of ten, drawn from every age group. My grandson Oscar was the smallest in his team, cheering enthusiastically as the others competed. During some events older team-members were allowed to help, events such as the wellie race which was difficult for little ones who could barely walk in ten gallon boots never mind run. Although I’d never met the young lady who held Oscar’s hand I recognized her mother and grandmother immediately as they waved and added their encouragement.

 

I feel very privileged to live in such a friendly community. When I was six years old my parents moved out of London to a small village in north Kent. It was the early 60’s and Upchurch was hardly bigger than Rosley but at that time the community was experiencing a period of great change. A faster rail network meant people could live in ‘picturesque’ Kentish villages and still work in London. This extension of the Commuter Belt meant new houses were going up wherever builders could get planning permission. Kent exploded with ‘estates’ which could house thousands of people, most of them earning higher wages in the city than they could ever earn in the small rural industries of Kent.

 

Unfortunately Kent’s education system wasn’t geared up for the sudden expansion and classrooms which had rarely contained more than a dozen children suddenly had to cater for thirty or more. This was certainly the case at Holywell Junior School, a two class-room building which finally closed the year after I left for secondary school. Many villagers resented the changes being brought about by this growth and there was a definite sense of division between ‘locals’ and ‘incomers’. As a child I wasn’t aware of what caused the rift but I sensed I was always an outsider. My sister, three and half years younger, never experienced the same isolation because by the time she began school the incomers outnumbered the locals. She still lives just a few miles from where we grew up whereas I never hesitated to leave. Community is a strong magnet, if you belong.

 

I’ve lived in Cumbria, in this same village, since 1982 and feel this is where I belong. I can never be a villager because I wasn’t born here, but with the third generation putting down roots we can almost claim to be locals.

 

 

 

 

 

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July 18, 2014 · 1:09 pm