American as Apple Pi

by Pauline Nash

Quilts inspired sophomores Monica Streifer and Rebecca Zabinsky to unravel an important aspect of women in the history of mathematics. Their project, “Math Quilts: Explorations in History, Tiling, and the Mathematics Behind America’s Oldest Craft,” argues that quilting is in accord with the abstract world of mathematics and the tactile art of sewing.

During their research, the students faced a paradox. Although 18th- and 19th century cultural attitudes dissuaded women from pursing academic mathematics and concluded women lacked the mental capacity for the science, the popular pastime of quilting required a complex understanding of mathematical principles.

Without doubt, quilting is an example of how women have used math throughout their daily lives, and Monica and Rebecca can attest to the complexity and precise nature of the craft.

Although they both took quilting classes as children, the students describe themselves as beginners. “Because we were inexperienced, we inadvertently picked a very intricate block pattern,” said Monica. The quilters spent more than 20 hours during fall semester measuring, cutting, pinning, and sewing a 29-block quilt that became their final project for Professor Christopher Towse’s Core III class, “Mathematics in Our Culture.”

“I liked the idea of the project from the start; it addressed many of the ideas of the class,” said Towse. “They did a great job explaining the mathematics related to quilting—tilings of the plane, periodicity and quasi-periodicity, and symmetries.”

The class was one of more than 20 distinct courses that fulfill the final section of the Core curriculum requisite. The three-semester Core Program in Interdisciplinary Humanities, required for all Scripps College students, focuses on the common themes of culture, knowledge, and representation. Core III narrows the focus and culminates in the creation of a personalized student project under the guidance of a faculty member.

When asked if they plan to create another quilt anytime soon, they laughed and shook their heads. “Maybe during senior year.”

 

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