Spatial Skills + Patterns ~ Using Nets (Math!) When You Sew

on July 27 | in Products, Sewing + Quilting Tips | by | with 92 Comments

Laura Laing loves to sew and she also loves math. She writes a little about how the two are connected in today’s post on spatial skills and patterns, about using nets and math when you sew. Laura has a new book out, Math for Grownups, and writes a blog with the same name (math is where it’s at for Laura!). The book and the blog are full of refreshers for adults to help you use math effectively in real-life, every day contexts. Learn more about Laura in her introduction, and enjoy today’s post. It’s fun to think in a new way about the skills you use all the time. If you sew, you’re probably really good at using a lot of different math skills!

Nothing But Net
Patterns don’t fit me. And I resent the fact that, according to the pattern manufacturers, my cute, little size 10 body is actually a size 16. There, I said it. Who’s with me?

That’s the beauty of sewing. You can change collars, shorten waistlines, lengthen skirts, add pockets and even create your own designs from scratch. And if you’re like me, it’s easy to take risks, thanks to my BFF, the seam ripper.

Of course creating or adapting a pattern does require a lot of confidence in your spatial skills. In other words, you’ve got to be able to translate a 3-dimensional finished product to a 2-dimensional pattern– Or the fabric pieces themselves, if you’re feeling bold and skipping the pattern all together.

What are spatial skills? Basically, they’re what we all use to mentally manipulate 2- and 3-dimensional representations. If you’re good at reading a map, you probably have strong spatial skills. If you “see” the pieces of a dress, you’ve got it going on.

But if you can’t seem to find your way around your home town or if pattern pieces never seem to mentally translate to the finished product, never fear! You can boost those skills with a little practice. Being able to mentally transform 3-D figures to their 2-D equivalents– and vice versa– can be tricky, but there are no funny glasses required.

If you only recently graduated from school or have elementary-age children, you probably know something about “nets.” These are 2-D representations of 3-D figures. You know those boxes that you can buy flattened out and then assemble when you need them? Those are nets:

First it’s a net…

…Then it’s a box!

If you’ve ever made fabric stacking boxes like these, you’ve used a cube net– but without the top.

Sleeves, pant legs and even bodices start out as nets. When we cut them out of the fabric, they’re flat– and they may not look at all like what they’re meant to be. A cap sleeve may look like a semicircle at first. Attach it to the arm hole, and it curves over the shoulder.

It’s like magic! This pattern becomes this sleeve.

Zipper bags, eyeglass cases, and other little organizing do-dads work the same way. Take a look at this pattern for an eyeglass case:

When the cutting and sewing are done, it transforms to this:

But you don’t have to completely depend on your mental spatial skills to create or alter a pattern. If you’ve cut the pattern out of paper, just fold and curve it to see if it works. I often do this even if I think I know what I’m doing. Many times, the curved pieces of a pattern end up looking more like straight seams on the finished piece. That cap sleeve is a perfect example: the curve is actually the edge of the sleeve that touches the arm, while the straight side is attached to the arm hole (which looks curved to me).

And of course you can always resort to building a muslin. I do this when I’m trying a new pattern I’ve created or altered, or when the pattern is complex enough and my fabric is expensive enough!

So, if you’re resisting the urge to create your own patterns or alter one that you love, turn on your math brain, do some sketches and see how nets can work for you. Just remember, if your project doesn’t work out, your trusty seam ripper can help save the day.

What do you think about sewing math (spatial or other skills?) Do you struggle? Is it your favorite part? Never even think about it? Comment today for a chance to win Math for Grownups!

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92 Responses to Spatial Skills + Patterns ~ Using Nets (Math!) When You Sew

  1. Eye Floaters says:

    The board game debate is on. There is little doubt that this is the best game of all time! Put it up against scrabble anyday and I’ll always pick this one. Action and thrilling, it is easily the best game of all time!

  2. Lisa Zap says:

    I like math, but wish sewing math was in metric. In Canada we’re taught in metric, but many of the sewing patterns to which I have access are in US imperial (as is the ruler on my sewing machine). It just confuses me.

  3. Nice website this is, I have bookmarked it in my firefox, cheers.

  4. Christina says:

    Wow, I never thought about thinking in terms of math to this level. This puts a whole new perspective on sewing for me. I’m a totally newbie so I want to learn as much as possible on the subject. Thanks!

  5. Tiffany says:

    What a great book idea! I’ve decided I prefer to start from scratch in sewing which means I need that math. I’m sure I could use it more efficiently.

  6. Ashley says:

    I would be ecstatic to have the automatic ability to figure out mentally the dimensions to create a pattern. That’s something I get better at as I start sewing more diverse projects. It still takes me awhile to do in my head and on paper but I am fascinated by math. Sounds like a very interesting book!

  7. Amanda Perl says:

    I love math! I had a hard time in school with advanced math but I will often do arithmetical estimations at bedtime for fun. My spatial skills are excellent though practice: I am naturally quite clumsy so I have to pay extra attention to space. As a result I am great at such adult math games as Moving Van Tetris.

  8. Claudia D. says:

    I am always amazed at how much math I use in quilting and sewing รขโ‚ฌโ€œ from figuring yardage to working with angles. To those who want to boost their spatial skills, I would recommend doing some simple origami. There are lots of web sites with simple patterns. I teach origami to middle school students. Some struggle with it and some just get it. It is sometimes very difficult to go from a flat piece of paper to a 3D object but with practice, anyone can do it. It is good exercise for the brain.

  9. rottenlittleboys says:

    Working in a fabric shop for years has definitely honed my ability to do maths in my head. I have helped people figure out how much fabric they need and the best way to do the project they want. Sometimes, I end up doing all of the maths for them. Luckily I have always had the nack for seeing things in 3-D.

    Even right now, I am ‘designing’ a crocheted sock bag with shells and lace and all sorts of pretty things. I love math.

  10. Marilyn says:

    MY favorite fabric pattern is Striped DAisy Marigold

  11. Nancy says:

    I find myself using my own shortcuts and weird geometry when I sew–I’ll do nearly anything to avoid having to deal with numbers. Perhaps Math For Grownups would help me to get over my fear!

  12. rose says:

    could be a fun read – patterns are always a noodle-bender!

  13. Sewing math is something that is often difficult for me. I appreciate anything that simplifies it!

  14. Lisabee says:

    I teach biology and my students struggle with the math we have to do (mostly multiplying / dividing by powers of 10). I don’t understand how they can get through their day to day lives! I like the mathematical aspects of quilting, especially figuring out how much new fabric I need to buy!

  15. Micheline says:

    This makes math fun because it’s relevant to something I love to do! And I’m going to become a Math for Grownups blog follower.

  16. Allison C says:

    It’s amazing how much math skills goes into everyday life and crafting. I have to use so much math in my day job (scientist), but also in my crafting which consists mainly of quilting, metalsmithing (jewelry), and felting. Even baking requires lots of math. I would love to win this book to learn any tricks to help my crafts go smoother. It can be painful with how many mistakes I make!

  17. Mary Haub... says:

    I’ve lately grown in confidence with my math skills, but it’s come through lots of trial-and-error. Maybe I’m the type to learn by doing. I’ve also decided that I CAN enjoy math, and that’s a big step. The first part of confidence is refusing to believe the lie that you CAN’T do something!

  18. Pamela V says:

    Thank you! My lack of spatial skills (and being able to subtract “in my head”) has been something that I have to deal with almost every day and being surrounded by engineer-type family members doesn’t help, well…except when I have a question. ๐Ÿ™‚ If I had been born 20 years later with calculators in the classroom…I could have pursued my love of science as a career. Thanks for the giveaway!

  19. Mary Jo says:

    this would be something good to keep my “grown up brain” working
    Thanks for the chance to win

  20. Kelly W says:

    Would love a chance to win. I’ve made things like bags without patterns before and am able to envision a finished project. Clothes are another story. They don’t translate and patterns seem confusing to me. Need to work on that.

  21. Leslie says:

    It’s funny, I much prefer math in sewing to math in knitting. And I preferred my calculus classes over both!

  22. Suzanne says:

    I am not a big fan of math…I think I have a mental block but would love to see if this would help me

  23. Rae says:

    I love math & I love sewing. ๐Ÿ™‚ Great to know how they go hand in hand. Now I am going to have to try to make my own pattern.

  24. Jen B says:

    I love trying to figure stuff out! I play all sorts of silly math games with myself while driving n long trips (because driving is so boring!)

  25. Jenn-O says:

    I don’t typically use patterns. That’s probably because I was never taught. I either try and create something myself or follow a tutorial. I’ve created my own bag patterns so I guess I use nets?? Math has always been one of my favorite subjects so if I could figure out how to incorporate that into sewing that would be great!

  26. Sara says:

    This is definitely the part of sewing that makes me squint and look around for the extra strength Motrin. That at the whole “straight line” concept. Mind boggling!

  27. Nik Kamisah says:

    I don’t really like Maths either but i never thought that Maths is associated with sewing. Anyway i love to sew, now only i know the practicallity of Maths in our everyday life.Tq for the book which enlighten our mind

  28. Amy says:

    I am a math and sewing person. I like to use a pattern but always find myself adapting things or making things bigger or smaller then the pattern. Occasionally I will go off on my own and make something and it takes me a little bit of time to get past the math stage and try it out. Hoping that I did it all right. My friend the other day commented on how I taught her to plan ahead using math and that they were able to get more out of the fabric then they had planned. GO MATH!!!

  29. Catherine L says:

    I confess that I actually majored in math in college. However, years of sewing things for my children has really brushed me up on my geometry skills. And it was amazing how long it took me to internalize simple things like if I take away 1/4 inch on each side of a seam then I’m reducing the total size of the thing by 1/2 inch. Since we’ve never really switched to metric I still think in the English system, but I have a European machine. Eek!

  30. Elisabeth says:

    I just finished sewing a mug rug. The pattern was a series of stipes which I based on the fibonacci series and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. So yes, I’m a big fan of maths, as we say here in the UK ๐Ÿ™‚

  31. Juanita says:

    Wow. What a useful topic. I too struggle with anything 3D. I just trust patterns blindly, and I get a kick out of how they work out (when they do)! I would love to be able to alter and design things myself…other than “flat” quilts and the like.

  32. Ramona says:

    I like sewing and math. I think my spatial thinking is ok but can always improve. Looks like a fun book.

  33. Linda S says:

    I like your perspective. Too bad they don’t teach sewing in the schools anymore (that’s where I learned)–it (and knitting) would really help kids come at math from new directions.

  34. Tina M says:

    I am horrid with math! I would love to know more. If I don’t win the book, I’ll certainly buy it! Hello, Santa?

  35. Jennyroo says:

    Remember that Barbie doll that said “Math class is tough!”??? That’s me!

  36. I am a math phobe ;–(

    One of the best things, however, is that my daughter is not only a talented knitter and sewist, but Rules At Math!

    Must be her father’s genes ….

  37. Deborah says:

    I came “this close” to failing geometry in Jr. High. I just could not grasp this exact concept you are showing. If only I had been shown real life ways of using geometry, like you have done right here, I could have had a chance. Now that I sew, I need math all the time, and am realizing that it is easier than I thought when I was young, though I do wish I could go back to school and take all those classes again.And I am also realizing that math can even be fun (shhhhh, don’t tell the kids). ๐Ÿ˜‰

  38. N. Perez says:

    I can’t say doing the required math is my favourite part of sewing but hopefully one day I’ll be humming a happy hum while doing this type of math.
    I would so love to get my hands on this book. I’m very curious to see it.

  39. Maya says:

    I think this is really interesting. My skills are pretty good since I work a lot with creating 3D objects from drawings. But I can “see” the object in my mind while I am creating.

  40. Cricket says:

    I can visualize nets with straight sides, but start throwing those curves into sewing pieces and I am completely lost. It gets easier the more I sew, but now I am trying to design my own stuff and something as simple as a cap sleeve can totally stump me.

  41. Suzanne says:

    I have let the math part of my brain go dormant. I need to find a challenge to use it more. I found Laura’s intro very interesting. I want to see more! Thanks for the giveaway.

  42. Lyndsey says:

    What a great book, I’d love a copy. I use maths all the time when trying to make my felt figures, especially little houses and things. I’m fairly new to sewing and dressmaking and know having more spatial awareness would help me, esp with sleeves! Great article!

  43. Kelley says:

    Dear Math- you lost me at fractions.
    I think this book was written for me! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  44. Jodie says:

    Oh, I so need that book. You’ve no idea how much I need that book!

  45. LH says:

    I’m great at algebra type math but terrible with geometry and spatial skills. Maybe this book would help me figure out how to use my strengths to compensate for my weaknesses!

  46. This is right up my alley! I was a mechanical engineer and a middle school math teacher before I had kids. Fascinating post. I use math a lot in my sewing, especially geometry.

  47. millie says:

    Cool; thanks! I wish I had paid better attention in Math class (and taken more classes), because I need it nearly every day in sewing. I was recently trying to figure out borders and binding for a quilt, and determine a finished size, based on a limited supply of a particular fabric. I was trying to work out how to figure it (and I did), when I suddenly realized I was doing a quadratic equation. This was the trickiest part of algebra for me and I never could get it because I could not see any possible real world application for this kind of equation that seemed so abstract. I was AMAZED to realize I was actually doing one because of a real life problem! I would sure love to have this book; I could really use a math refresher!

  48. Jen V says:

    Call me nerdy but I like that sewing gives me the opportunity to use math. I stay at home with two little ones and, frankly, my brain can use the exercise. Sometimes I have to dig deep to recall the math skills that I once took for granted but it is rewarding when I come up spot on. Or not, then I draw on my powers of improvisation.

  49. Emily says:

    I really struggle with this. Often I need ask for help to check my calculations. I’m not bad at math in general but have never been good at spatial relations or geometry which are pretty much the math you use in sewing. I try to consider my mistakes as “making scraps”. ๐Ÿ™‚

  50. Theresa says:

    I have no confidence in using my math skills to alter patterns. As for seeing how nets become 3-D stuff, that’s not a problem.

  51. Pat Ives says:

    I started sewing about 48 (!) years ago, though I’m just getting back into it after about a 10 year break. The last garment I made was my firstborn’s wedding dress. Math is essential to sewing; I find that if I try to “wing it” without some basic calculations, I wind up wasting fabric. Laura, I think you’ve come up with a book that could be helpful in a lot of situations!

  52. Evelyna says:

    I am one of those people who just didn’t like math growing up. However, now that I am a grown up, I feel the urge to really dig in and learn. This is intriguing stuff. I know my sewing suffers from holes in my skills. Looking forward to reading the book.

  53. Lena Merrin says:

    I think I use maths the most in my sewing – the golden ratio, the proportions, the circle formulae. I do it all and it works!

  54. Carol Frey says:

    I stink at real-world math, and I’m Always trying to use it for one thing or aoher, then second, third and fourth guessing myself. I’m totally getting this book.

  55. Carmen says:

    I graduated with a math minor but it’s amazing how much I struggle with daily math skills!

  56. Bethany says:

    I think one of my favorite parts of sewing is getting to put my math skills to use. I’ve always excelled at and enjoyed math and I’m afraid I can’t relate to those who say they don’t get it. But I love helping people understand it. It always helps reinforce my knowledge to help someone reach an “ah-ha” moment!

  57. Carolyn E says:

    love this post and your book looks like it needs to find a place on my bookshelf in my classroom, at a Math/Science Magnet School. Every fall the 4th graders interview adults to find out how they use math everyday. I love being interviewed by the students and talking to them about how I use math and sewing/quilting.
    Great glasses case I need to make a couple of those!

  58. VickiT says:

    I cringe when math is involved with anything. I’ve been that way since grade school. Heck, in high school being ambitious I selected alegebra I and then reality hit me that it was such a bad idea if I was wanting a passing grade so I had to drop back to math instead. ๐Ÿ™ At the age of ummm 50+ do I qualify yet as a Grownup if I would still fail a math test? LOL

  59. Ladybug says:

    These would make a great baby shower gift.

  60. Ashley says:

    I am horrible with math and usually have to get my husband to help. If math were a food he would slurp it out of a bowl. He loves it. So this book would come in pretty handy. Thanks for the chance at an awesome giveaway!

  61. Laura says:

    I wish I wasn’t so afraid of math! I am always second guessing myself because I’m sure I’ve messed something up when I’m cutting out patterns and putting things together!

  62. Suze says:

    Math is definitely NOT my thing! I would rather take a few measurements for approximate length/width then draw a picture and do it many more times than actually try to figure out something with math. Gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it!

  63. Serena says:

    I’m fine with sewing math, but, well, math in general has never been my strong subject. :/ I love that simple glasses case!

  64. MelodyJ says:

    I struggle. I really want to be better at math. I think it’s an important skill that can help you in many areas of life including sewing and crafts.


  65. Beth says:

    for me is the most funny part of process!

  66. Victoria says:

    I love the fact that once I have workd through the math on a pattern design or re-design, I never have to do it again! How many other things can you say that about!? Change the baby, do it again in an hour. Clean the bathroom, clean it again next week (or in an hour if you are TTing a little guy. Do the math and it is done. Yeah, Geometry!

  67. Deanna says:

    YAY MATH! I was an average math student in school, but discovered as an adult that I truly enjoy it. I have resisted purchasing design software just because my pencil sketches and calculations are one of my favorite parts of sewing and quilting. Thanks for the chance at the book, too. It would be a pleasure.

  68. Cynthia says:

    I usually do not too badly, but every so often I get something completely wrong and come out with a completely different shape than I expected. Sometimes that’s fine; other times, not so much!

  69. Lori says:

    I think this book may have been written for me! I struggle greatly with trying to figure all math out, sewing, home improvement, etc. My oldest is only in Kindergarten but I think he will outpace my helping skills in about 2nd grade!

  70. erinmalia says:

    Okay. Sewing and math? Uh, talk about two of my favorite things! One was my major (the math) and the other is just something I love. In fact, a lot of times I don’t like using patterns just so I can use my math. The author of this book and I should be friends.

  71. Ruth Fidino says:

    You are right up my alley. One of my sons makes great messenger bags with no pattern. He’s got the gift of spatial awareness. Me not so much. I’d love this book.

  72. Joanne says:

    Math is an important part of my sewing. Thanks for the post and chance to win.

  73. Julie says:

    I love math! My major in college was math. Now I teach math, this book may be the coolest sewing book ever for me!

  74. Tess says:

    I’ve never really loved math, but the spatial application is the one area I actually feel comfortable… and having an engineering math-whiz husband gives me the back-up I need for figuring out the trickier ratios and such!

  75. Amy says:

    I will honestly say my lack of “sewing math” is what keeps me from being a more adventurous seamstress AND knitter. I’d love to see what this unique book could do for me. Thanks for the introduction and chance to win!

  76. Heidi R says:

    I love to sew! I do not sew for myself because the finished item never fits. It is frustrating. I do make PJ bottoms, boxer shorts and clothing for chilwould love to find an easy way to sew clothing that fits. Would love to try out Math for Grownups and maybe I’ll have a new wardrobe that I’ve sewn myself!dren that I don’t need to ajust and usually they fit just fine. I

  77. emily says:

    I’ve always struggled with seeing how a 2-d “net” will look in 3-d…which makes it really hard trying to come up with my own patterns! Sigh. Maybe it just takes practice? Trial and error? This book looks great!

  78. Sara Smith says:

    Math has never been my strong point, but I’ve always loved to sew. Looks like an interesting book.

  79. Holly says:

    I’m sooo bad at math, I need this book! Though I do think sewing has been a great way to challenge my brain with math and spacial skills.

  80. charlotte says:

    I’m a grown up, who hates math! When my husband once saw all my number scribbles for figuring out a quilting pattern/how much of which fabrics I’d need, he said, “see, you are good at math!” Except there was much more work involved for me than for most people I think! And it takes me forever. And I’m usually wrong about something. lol. It’s brutal!

  81. Missy says:

    I’m terrible at math and just realized how important math is to sewing. I would love to win this book. Thank you!

  82. Buffey says:

    So I’m not the only one who uses math in my sewing? I’ve pulled out my drafting tools (from engineering school) to alter many patterns. Still need to master sleeves though…haven’t found my french curve, maybe that would help?

  83. I’ll fess up to something. Before I took up sewing, I didn’t know how to read a ruler. After moving around every year or two as a kid, I just never learned it. Sewing not only made me figure it out, but I use math on a regular basis…. and I like it! Fractions, well, they still trip me up on occasion. ๐Ÿ™‚

  84. Kate says:

    Oh, I struggle! And I’m so with Laura – how is my muscular size 12 bod an 18!! An 18??!! I want to sew my own clothing, but I haven’t, because I don’t have the math skills to do so. Help this high school English teacher out!

  85. Katrina Kotowski says:

    My math skills for sewing are almost non-existent. I do ok @ doubling and halving recipes, but I do not feel confident about math skills or sewing skills to alter a pattern.

  86. Erin Gustafson says:

    My husband is a Math teacher so I am so thankful for him to help me with the math that I have to do with my sewing. He sometimes brings in my quilts to show the kids about tessellations.

  87. helen wright says:

    I always hated maths at school. I use it at work and have to take the long route through it all, so I haven’t gone near sewing maths!

  88. Steph Mabry says:

    I’ll admit, I resist the math aspects of sewing – I hold things up to myself, then add a little bit, if I’m making a garment…or just kind of wing it if I’m making a quilt! I work in an accounting office, so I do math all day – I prefer skipping that part of my sewing hobby! ๐Ÿ™‚

  89. Liz r says:

    I think I struggle with the spatial skills in some sewing pattern and I would like to learn how to strengthen that part of my thinking. I can sometime figure it out but something always goes wrong.
    Sometime that is when trying to find something in a new town I get lost.
    I would really like to win a copy of your book !!!

  90. Teralyn says:


    this is so funny and true!

    I have made purses and things with the same basic idea of thinking back to what a flat cylinder looks like

  91. […] today is the big day. You can read my guest post, “Nothing but Net,” which talks about how we can mentally (and physically) translate 2-dimensional figures into the 3rd […]

  92. Laurel says:

    Great info. thanks for sharing!

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