Tag Archives: Technology

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

Love Affairs – Part One

While researching in some old magazines recently I discovered an article called ‘Love Affairs’ which was published in the Goldsmiths Review of 1989, a magazine produced by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and distributed to members.


The writer, Geoffrey Wilson OBE, was then chief inspector of schools for Kirklees LEA. He wrote the article because ‘the educational prescriptions of the National Curriculum into which the child now has to fit leaves little room to have those deep love affairs which were of significance to all of us in the past.’ His prime concern being, ‘it does not even pay lip service to those deeper and more profound values associated with the spiritual and emotional growth of children which were of paramount importance to those……concerned with the teaching of craft and design in the sixties and seventies.

Wilson continues, ‘some of us remember revelling in the aesthetics of skill; the child with his eyes closed stroking his cheek with a piece of finished wood; or marvelling as he raised a piece of silver or used a graver or spokeshave.’

Wilson had hoped the National Curriculum would be a chance to redress the imbalance of a system which had only contempt for technical subjects. Instead five dissimilar components were amalgamated: Technology; Craft, Design and Technology/ Home Economics/ Information Technology/ Art/ Business Studies. Wilson said if there was one thing he believed after a lifetime in education it was that good learning takes place in the company of experts and to put together these five incompatible bedfellows could only be a recipe for disaster.

He then laid out a list of ten ‘confusions’.

1 Personal worth is confused with personal status and position.

2 Satisfaction is confused with reward.

3 Personal identity is confused with personal possessions.

4 Personal responsibility is confused with conformity.

5 Respect is confused with obedience.

6 Strength and resolve are confused with toughness and ruthlessness.

7 Change is confused with progress.

8 Education is confused with cleverness.

9 Fulfilment is confused with enjoyment.

10 Urgency is confused with importance.

Government, he says, comes down in favour of the measurable, instrumental features which form the second words in each confusion. Who moves the human spirit? Who will dare, other than in protest, to make those imaginative leaps encouraged by the old education system? We are classified by the words we use and management, delivery, assessment, audit, client, market place, discipline, toughness have become the ‘in’ words.

He ended with this story: ‘When Michaelangelo was going to Rome to see the Pope prior to his being employed to build the great dome of St. Peter’s and paint the Sistine Chapel, he took with him a reference which said: The bearer of these presents is Michaelangelo the sculptor….his nature is such that he requires to be drawn out by kindness and encouragement – but if love be shown him and he be treated really well, he will accomplish things that will make the whole world wonder.

The making of beautiful things requires care, compassion, encouragement and love. 

(Photograph of The Lady of the Lake, taken during filming)  


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Small Stone 14


Damn computers…technology promises so much,

But when it fails there is nothing.

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