Hello my lovelies!
A seamstress I know hangs up the phone and sighs with exasperation. A newly engaged bride named Melody has called to find out how much it will cost to alter a wedding gown. She does not know what kinds of alterations it needs, how many layers it has to hem, or if it needs a bustle. A bustle is a technical term for something in a hedge row… Just kidding. It’s when you button up the train of a gown so it hangs even with the rest of the dress. A train is something that people take to get somewhere else. It’s also the long part of the gown that all the drunk people at the wedding are going to step on after a bride drags it down the aisle. This bride on the phone does not have her shoes yet and she has no idea when she can bring the dress in for a fitting. But she wants a price. How much? My friend wiggles her fingers in a mystical way at the phone, now back in its cradle, as if she is clairvoyant. Hmmm… she muses… somewhere between $80-120? $400? $50? Who the hell knows…
“Don’t people GET it? Has NO ONE ever gone to a math class??” she asks for the thousandth time this month, “We need all the variables before we can do the problem!”
As a person who calls a ruler a “stick with numbers,” I confess that Math has never been my strong suite. In fact, if I had ever suspected how much math I would wind up having to use on a daily basis, I would have tried to pay more attention to things like compound fractions and inverted denominations while the teachers were droning on about them. I just snuck storybooks of myths and legends under my desk and assumed that in my future life I would never need to find a coefficient—which I assume is something efficient—though I probably need one now! Alas, math is everywhere. It sneaks up on you. I said this once to my friend Steve, who is a math teacher in western Massachusetts, and he said “Please come into my class and tell my students that!! Please! They have no idea!”
I remember back to fifth grade, when we were asked to calculate how far Mr. Smith would drive if he was traveling East on a Tuesday at 55 miles per hour and drove for two and a half hours, I was always less interested in the pertinent information—( 55 x 2.5) and much more intrigued by the impertinent. Why was he traveling East? Why Tuesday? Did Mrs. Smith pack him a lunch—like grandma’s basket of pepper and egg sandwiches—so that he would not have to stop at some revolting fast-food place? Did he really have some place important to go to or was he just doing this to drive us fifth graders mad? I never got the hang of word problems and I’m not even all that good at the most basic calculations. In college, when I was working at a fabric store called Piece Goods, I actually concluded that a customer would need about 76 yards of fabric to make a set of kitchen curtains. She believed me without question, even though the average window is not more than one yard wide and two yards long. We started wondering how many bolts, at ten yards a bolt, we would have to order. Luckily, a co-worker named Georgia with a rich, mahogany laugh, interrupted us with the shout, “Girl! That’s exactly the right amount of fabric…if-ing you planning to slipcover Rhode Island with the leftovers!”
“How much?” is the question we are asked over and over again. Often the answers are arbitrary, based on a strange alchemy between how much effort something requires and how much we think the customer is willing to value that effort in actual dollars. The use of money as a translation for talent, time, and energy is imperfect. When I hear from mathematician friends that numbers get very flexible the more sophisticated the equations get, I feel confused. Numbers are numbers. Facts are facts. Well, apparently not at the highest levels—which includes Advanced Number Theory, the United States Government, and certain tailoring shops, where something called "a skinch" (a skinny inch) is an accepted measurement.
We use basic math, particularly geometry, for an average of nine hours a day. The life of a seamstress consists mostly of word problems such as:
1. “Ruthie Chooch sees a blouse on sale at T.J. Maxx for $12 and decides to buy it, regardless of the fact that it is a size 2 and she is a most curvatious and voluptuous size 18. She loves the design so much—she decides to buy two blouses in the hopes that a local seamstress can sew them together somehow. How many blouses, at 12 dollars a pop, will it take to slipcover Ms. Chooch’s bazoombas? Keep in mind, she is planning to wear this garment to church. And how much will this project cost in the end, after the frazzled seamstress spends four days on it?
a. The GDP of a tiny country
b. Think of a number, any number
c. Nothing, as Ms. Chooch will never come pick it up.
2. Given that this shop pays ( x in rent + y in utilities +z in employee salaries), how much should we charge to hem a pair of pants?
c. We should do them for free, like granny did.
3. Mrs. Joysmacker swoops into the shop and slaps twenty beautiful shawls down on the table. They are hand-crocheted cotton triangles in vibrant organic dyes from some third-world country where people still know how to make such loveliness. Mrs. Joysmacker wants them hacked into pieces and reassembled as a kind of sweater/coat for herself that is fringed all over. How many triangles will be destroyed to make a large rectangle to cover her back, two thinner rectangles to cover her front, and two cylinders for arms?
c. We could not bear to count
4. Mrs. Muffincrusher has purchased some curtains on sale. In her eagerness to save herself a buck, she neglects to realize that these panels were 84” long. She now needs them shortened to 64.” The clever seamstress now
a. Chops twenty inches off the bottom of each panel and calls it a day
b. Chops anything from 19-22 inches off each panel, none of which turn out to be 84” to begin with
c. Sweats the details VERY carefully, knowing that the dim eyesight that overlooked the numeral 84 on the package will not fail to notice a hairs’ breath of difference from ten yards away and that Mrs. Muffincrusher will be back to plague her at least sixteen times until she gets it right.
5. Bertha Birkenstock’s son Bobby is a very busy boy scout. He has earned quite a few patches recently and needs twelve new ones stitched onto his sash. If we normally charge between 2-4 dollars a patch (depending on size and whether or not there are pockets involved), how much will Bobby’s achievements in knot-tying and whittling cost Bertha Birkenstock?
a. $24-48 because each patch will be a different color and we will have to change threads at least 47 times and break three needles in the process
b. $12 because Bertha Birkenstock will moan and groan otherwise
c. Why the hell don’t boy scouts get a patch for learning how to sew on their own damn patches?
These are just a few of the problems that we run into on a daily basis. Let’s not even get into the kind of geometry it takes to fit a man with no bum who wants to wear his pants tight! As a carpenter in cloth, I’ve come a long way in my math skills. “A long way,” I said, not “far.” The two are very different things, as I hope you have learned by now. Most days, I remember to make sure the tape is starting with the numeral “1” when I take someone’s measurements. And I always measure more than once. I hate it when I cut something three times and then it’s still too short!
Be well, be kind, and do good work!