Murphy Waggoner- Using Math To Make Quilts

It’s doubtful even Pythagoras himself could’ve imagined this. Sure, the iconic Greek mathematician proved the theorem that’s been referred to as the most powerful equation used in construction. But it’s doubtful he ever realized that it would, one day, be art that you could sleep under.

Enter Dr. Murphy Waggoner.

Waggoner, a professor of mathematics at Simpson, never realized this either until one day, when she was watching a show about quilting. “I was watching Fons & Porter,” she explained, referring to the show on IPTV.

“They were creating a quilt block and when I saw it I thought, ‘I know the mathematical concept that represents.’

It’s funny, they have no clue what that one show spawned.”

What it spawned was an approach to teaching and learning at Simpson that truly is one of a kind. Waggoner created a course — Symmetry, Sewing and Service — which focuses on using quilting as a way to teach mathematics. In it, students use calculation skills to figure out the symmetry involved with repeating designs, and they incorporate mathematical concepts into those designs. From there they design and sew their quilts and write a paper on the mathematics involved. The quilts ultimately are donated to local and area charitable organizations.

“To truly understand a mathematical concept, you need to understand it symbolically and visually,” Waggoner said. “If I have an education major who’s going to someday teach fractions, this is a way of letting them incorporate a visual representation of fractions in a creative way. In the end I think that just enhances their ability to understand that concept symbolically.”

Waggoner has always been fascinated by the connection between art and math. Student quilts have included patches that visually represent fractions, triangular numbers, regions of the plane, Pascal’s Triangle, prime numbers and, of course, the Pythagorean Theorem.

And the interplay between art and math is indeed very real.

“If an artist were to look at one of these quilts, they’re going to see something very artistic,” she said. “If a mathematician looks at it, they’re going to see something completely different. They’re going to see the mathematical concepts going on in there.”

Waggoner has taught the class as a May Term offering as well as a semester-long course. Next up is a Simpson Colloquium course she is planning for this fall — a course that will examine the history, economics and art of quilting, while forsaking the mathematical components involved.

An interesting twist, given that it will be taught by a mathematician who, by her own admission, is not a quilter.

“I’m not a quilter,” she said. “I’m a recycler. I’ll take old pieces of clothing and make quilts out of them. But in reality, my quilts are just blankets. They’re not art.”

Actually, it depends on who you ask.

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