Math and Quilts

In high school, you said you’d never need it again in your life. Well, there’s a good chance that you did, anyway. “That’s why they invented calculators!” and “Who cares about the area of a parallelogram?” may have come out of my mouth at some teenaged point in my life.

I wish those words were more delicious because I am eating them now. A calculator doesn’t really account for seam allowances and fractions of an inch without first converting it to decimals, so I have to figure out the specific numbers in my head before I can punch them in. And sometimes, I really, really care a lot about the area of a parallelogram made of fabric. It is impossible to do any sort of patchwork without math, even if it’s just a little bit.

Quilt patterns and kits are a lifesaver for many, because as long as one follows the directions, one can make a nice quilt without a lot of mental exertion. The math has been figured out beforehand by someone else. Even incredibly helpful books, like Taking the Math out of Making Patchwork Quilts, by Bonnie Leman and Judy Martin (available through online retailers), don’t eliminate math, they give charts and formulas for all types of quilts and quilt blocks so it’s easier to start a project. They’ve done all the calculations for you so you can get right to the fun part.

617er4 86BL. SL500 SS500  Math and Quilts

Aspiring quilt designers, those who want to innovate and come up with new, exciting quilt and quilt block designs necessarily have to brush up on their math skills. There are lots of great designs that are comprised of only 90 degree angles, but most are not new. Even deciding to set a simple block on-point requires a whole separate thought process, and probably some scratch paper. So, aside from enrolling in a remedial math course at the community college, what’s a quilter with a new design in mind to do?

“But Gigi,” you are saying, “what about Electric Quilt?” Yes, it is amazingly helpful software. You can just draw out your design and all the tricky stuff is automatically done for you. I have been able to play around with it a couple of times, and while I don’t know everything about it, I can see the possibilities. So many possibilities! I wish I had more time to explore and experiment with it. Human error is prevalent in quilting however, and it doesn’t consider the subtle fudging and adjusting that quilters often have to do, like accounting for variations in grain or seam allowance or knowing that you accidentally cut your patches a little too small. I can’t be the only quilter who needs to keep mental tallies like this, and it’s basic math to the rescue, again.

Math skills are like any skill, really – Use it or lose it. If I struggle through a complex arithmetic problem in my head or on scratch paper, I know that the next time I have to figure out a math problem, it will be just a bit easier since I practiced and worked at it before.

Since I started working at Quilters Newsletter, all the geometry and arithmetic I thought I had forgotten has become extremely important for writing and checking patterns and determining yardage. It has made me think more about the way I design quilts and the best way to bring a sketch to life in fabric. As a mental exercise, it’s fun and fulfilling to get back to basics and figure everything out with brain power, pencil and paper. I recommend it for any quilter, especially if they’ve never designed a quilt.

There are lots of helpful formulas and shortcuts to help get you started, too many to list here, but the book mentioned above is a good resource and a great place to start. But one tool I can’t live without for figuring out new designs is graph paper. It comes in squares, triangles, diamonds and you can even get a radial graph paper. There are even graph paper samplers especially made for quilters. Most quilters are very visual people, so it can be incredibly helpful to see a design sketched out to see if it will work. But the best, I think, is the 8 x 8 grid paper, where each small square measures 1/8″.

If you imagine that each small square will equal 1″, 1.5″ or more, than any design you sketch can be blown up in proportion to any size. The possibilities are endless. But when I come up with a design that I really like, I always draw it out on the graph paper full-size. If the shapes are odd, I can simply cut out the patches, tape them to another piece of paper, and add the 1/4″ seam allowances to make a pattern piece. It works, no math required. That will come later when I need to join my blocks, add multiple blocks, sashings or borders and so on.

Don’t let the calculators and computers have all the fun! Your brain is an amazing, infinitely complex computer capable of things you probably don’t even know about. Put it to work and see what you can create!

We have a ton of links to handy hints and time-saving tips of all sorts on our Pinterest page. Keep up with us on Facebook and Twitter, too! Our website is a great place to browse for inspiration and ideas as well.

About Gigi Khalsa

Associate Editor at Quilters Newsletter
This entry was posted in Gigi and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Math and Quilts

  1. Twochocolatedogs says:

    While I have never struggled much with the math involved in quilting, I have found that designing my own quilts often brings about new and unexpected challenges. Usually I can work through them, however it’s often a cumbersome and lengthy process for me. While working on a graduation quilt (no pressure there), I decided I wanted to make a medallion quilt with an exact hexagon in the center of the square medallion. The finished size of the center medallion had to be a certain measurement to fit with the surrounding blocks, so I was sort of working backwards. (Sometimes listening to the quilt while you are working on it changes the whole design and it designs itself!) I could have figured out the measurement of the sides with trial and error, but since my husband is a high school math teacher, I decided it would be quicker to enlist his help. Of course he pulled some formula out of his brain, and in a matter of seconds was able to tell me the measurement I needed. I was able to quickly draft the center and finish the quilt on time.

    I learned an unexpected lesson. Involving him in the process has made him so much more appreciative of my handy work, and now he often mentions to random people that I am a quilter, and whips out photos of that graduation quilt to showcase my “expertise!” (Sometimes to my shock!) Best of all, he is no longer impatient, rushing me though the quilt shop when I am choosing fabrics for a new quilt! He even helps choose fabrics when I enlist his help! Math and quilting are inextricably entwined, and I plan to consult my mathematician more often, as it has also brought us closer together! Whoever could have predicted that?

  2. Pingback: Double Without Trouble | Inside Quilters Newsletter

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