Math Hater?

We all learn and think a little differently. Some people’s brains absorb images easily, while other people work in words. Still other people process numbers nimbly. But rarely do I ever hear of someone who hates pictures or hates words. They may say, “I learn more easily when I can see it done.” Or, “Pictures confuse me, but when it’s written out, I can get it.”

Frequently people from all kinds of backgrounds say, “I hate math,” or “I can’t do math.” It’s absolute, not just an expression of preference. Often they give an excuse, such as, “I’m an artist … a writer … a musician … just a mom … ” or “I had bad teachers in grade school” or “I never learned anything I would really use.” Often the math-aversion is expressed as a boast, rather than a regret.

Consider, many people are willing to say, “I can’t do math.” Few of those same people would proudly admit, “I can’t read.” Why do you think these lead to different responses?

Perhaps you wonder why this discussion belongs on a quilt blog. It belongs because quilting is full of math. Begin with buying fabric. How many yards do you need? Why do you need that many? Do you need to worry about shrinkage? (YES.) How many patches or strips can you cut from your purchase? How much will it cost? Do you know if the clerk rang up your purchase correctly?

Then move on to more complicated stuff, like when you’re designing your own projects. Maybe you have a bunch of blocks you’ve made or collected in swaps or purchased at an estate sale. How big of a quilt can you make from it? What if you use sashing? What if you turn them on point and use sashing? How many blocks do you need to make a queen-sized quilt? Or how about very complicated stuff, like how much should you charge for a quilt you are selling?

There are various ways to answer questions like these. Alternatives for the quilt size question include laying out all the blocks in various configurations and estimating how much disappears within seam allowances. Or you can draw it all out on graph paper or in quilt design software like EQ7. You can look it up in charts, if you happen to have the right resource and understand how to use it. Or you can do the math.

Very little of the math is actually hard to do. Almost all of it is very simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, stuff we learned to do in grade school. There’s some geometry with shapes and areas, and a little algebra from time to time. But I’ve never had to write a geometry proof to quilt. And all the formulas are easy to find, and easy to calculate with your handy dandy electronic calculator (or computer or smart phone app.)

A few days ago I read a question from a quilter about how many blocks she would need, given a few assumptions. I wrote out the process she could use to calculate it. It’s a few steps, but by doing a few steps she can use the same process regardless of size of blocks she has, or size of quilt she makes. She can figure it out. SHE HAS THE POWER.

When you add basic quilting math to your set of quilting skills, you make yourself more powerful. You are less dependent on someone else’s patterns and instructions. You are freed to be more creative. You can figure out whether the remnant in your stash is enough for the patches you will cut, or if you’ll need to find something else. You can charge a fair price for your work when you sell your quilts.

Are you a math hater? What math quilting skills do you need to improve? Do you want to improve? Are there formulas or processes you would like to see here?

My previous blog posts with mathy stuff in them include:

Fraction Conversions
Economy Block ANY Size (With Cheat Sheet!)
How to Set a Block On Point
Design Process — Border Size Problems and Solutions
Tutorial: Straight-Grain Binding

Let me know how you see yourself in the math arena. If there is interest, I can build some tutorials on quilt math, and help you be more powerful.

13 thoughts on “Math Hater?

  1. bermudagirl

    Melanie, great post, I am such a Math hater, and it wasn’t until I started quilting that I realized, I couldn’t avoid it any longer!! It is so true what you say and I will try to read up on your other posts, that certainly look interesting!

  2. sharoney2014

    Melanie, I hated math in high school, and just barely squeaked by in algebra, while totally flunking out of geometry. How ironic that I use geometry just about every day of my life! What it comes down to for me is that you do what you do because you have to–no one else is going to figure it out for you. And once you figure something out, not only does it make it easier the next time, it gives you the confidence to tackle more difficult things. I never shy away from a project because it looks too difficult. I figure I’ll just figure it out!

  3. Thread crazy

    Great post Melanie – I couldn’t agree with you more on math. I was always dumbfounded while working at quilt shop and people had no idea of how to figure how much fabric you need. Math was never my favorite subject until I started working. Who knew I’d end up in an accounting type job! Yes, math is needed!!

  4. KerryCan

    When I was in high school, I thought I should hate math (everyone did) and be bad at it, but it turned out I loved it! It was a matter of solving puzzles and seemed so logical. I worked for awhile as a picture framer, a job I got because I could add fractions with no problem, and I honestly think part of the appeal quilting has for me is the math involved!

  5. Patchwork Bliss

    This was such an interesting topic. Although I don’t think in numbers, I do love doing the quilt math for both my quilts and for my student’s quilts. I always enjoy your blogs.
    Happy quilting,

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I enjoy it, too. I don’t think in numbers generally, except for quilt math. Math is definitely a second language for me, not what I grew up with. But I can do okay with anything I face, so that’s enough.

  6. Karen B

    Thanks for this. I agree, the “math” needed for quilting is BASIC arithmetic. “I hate math” is an attitude I wish were more unacceptable. Not just in quilting, but in life. This is sounding a little callous, but in real life I am very patient and try to help people with math. When I tutor, I tell my students it’s half attitude and half technique that will make them successful. We work on attitude: “When did you start hating math?” “Third grade.” “Why?” “I fell behind and never caught up.” “What if you were caught up? Could you stop hating math?” “Maybe…” “OK. Let’s do it!” This sequence is surprisingly common! I think most quilters have great potential to start liking math again.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I love books/sites, etc., that tell me HOW to figure something. That makes it MINE ALL MINE to use as I wish. 🙂 I went to grade school with smart kids and always (once aware) felt like I was at the bottom of the class in math. I never did learn it as a language, the way some of my grad school classmates knew it. Even so, I’ve taken more math than maybe 98% of Americans. And mostly it was a matter of practice.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I LOVE your attitude!

  7. farmquilter

    I get confused when trying to figure out how much material I need for a block, row, quilt, when there are triangles involved! Squares and rectangles are not hard but triangles…all the different kinds of those beauties…make me crazy and my block, row or quilt is not the size I’m expecting! I designed a border using graph paper that incorporated HST and QST…I cut my pieces extra large so I could trim them down to the right size but wasted quite a bit of fabric. I also made a border of Delectable Mountains – I ended up putting a small “sashing” between each block because I could not make it work out to the correct size! Worked out, but not exactly the way I wanted it to!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Well you know, with borders sometimes the numbers aren’t nice and we have to get creative to make it work. Sounds like you did that.

      Part of the problem with yardage for hst and qst is there are so many different ways to make them. But maybe it’s time to remind people how to make them to measure. Thanks for commenting.


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