I failed nearly every math course I took growing up. When my mother had exhausted her capacity for mathematical altruism, she hired me a tutor. After two lessons, the tutor quit, citing irreconcilable differences. I went on to drop out of my final high school math course altogether, and to this day remain unclear as to whether or not I actually finished high school on achievement, or if they just let me slide because they were tired of suspending me for smoking on the baseball field instead of learning the Pythagorean Theorem.
The silver lining through all of this was that back then, teenage wisdom assured me that I would never again, under any threat of death or dismemberment, have to use mathematical principles beyond the cluttered confines of the classroom. At graduation, I waved an insulting farewell to mathematics, certain I’d seen the last of it.
As it turned out, though, my problem wasn’t with mathematical principles at all, but with calculation, which was no surprise since I’d once deduced that adding two and two together could only logically result in the number twenty-two. What life I’d experienced until then spiralled into chaos when I learned that the answer is actually four.
Thus, one can imagine my chagrin when I learned that quilting involves significantly more calculation than the booze-to-ice ratio of the cocktail on my sewing table. And because I don’t like calculation, I do the only logical thing, which is to forget about it until I have no other choice.
Such was the case a few months ago when a member of my church asked me to make a quilt for our pastor’s office. I thoughtlessly agreed, and asked her what sort of pattern she had in mind. She suggested the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. I promptly looked heavenward and asked God what I’d done to deserve this.
After giving it some inebriated consideration, though, I told her that if she, an artist, could reduce each image of the Fourteen Stations down to symbolic representation using only squares, triangles and rectangles, then I’d be up to the task, figuring it highly unlikely that anyone, however accomplished at her craft, could reduce such powerful imagery into fourteen three-color pixelated blocks. I imagine you can see where this is headed.
The initial sketch was laid out to scale on a sheet of graph paper, which meant that my first calculation would be to determine how many squares, triangles and rectangles of each size I’d need. But graph paper squares are tiny, and frankly, I don’t like counting tiny things. Instead, I did what any other numerically-challenged person would do. I estimated.
Of course, the estimation led to another calculation to determine how many yards of each fabric I’d need. Here again, there seemed to be a lot of hypothetical. If these squares are 2.5 inches, and if these squares are 2.whatever-seven-eighths-looks-like-in-decimal-form inches, and if each fabric strip is 42 inches…hold on. I need a drink.
The final design consisted of twenty blocks in total; fourteen for the stations, and six to make up a centerpiece design. To make the project easier, I separated all of my squares, triangles, and rectangles into twenty groups, each one comprised of the thirty-six squares that would make up each block. Here I think it would be helpful for you to know that if there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty-nine years of life, it’s that there really is no point in me trying to be organized in the first place unless I feel the insatiable desire to fail. Organizing the construction of my quilting blocks, it seems, is no exception. Despite having laboriously counted out each square for each block, when the sewing commenced, so did the sorting and slicing of leftover fabric to make up for all of the pieces I’d missed while “getting organized.” Apparently my trouble with calculation is rooted firmly in an inability to count.
When I ended up with my twenty blocks of oh-so-carefully measured squares, I sewed them together into strips. This is the point where I should have started to feel triumphant, but when two rows turned out to be nearly two-thirds of an inch too short, my sense of pride was forced to undergo an emergency evaluation. For better or worse, though, my sense of pride is overdeveloped to begin with, and instead of evaluating anything, I said to myself, “Don’t worry, Josh. Just keep sewing. It’ll all square off eventually.” For those who are curious, yes, this is the same mental tactic I use for balancing my bank account.
A few days later, my mother was at my Brooklyn apartment, a trip she’d already planned with my father for the occasion of meeting my fiancee’s parents for the first time. But that would have to wait. I had more pressing matters at hand. I had a rogue quilt, and I needed answers. I needed someone who would beat that quilt into submission. I thrust the quilt towards my mother and demanded an explanation.
“Well to start with,” she said, “your squares aren’t all the same size.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “You must not be wearing your glasses.”
“I’m sure,” she replied, “that you must have been drinking while you cut these squares, because even without my glasses I can tell that your squares are not all the same size.” My mother always knows just the right thing to say.
I’d like to think that with practice my numerical prowess will improve at least as far as I need it to for quilting, but I’m also fully prepared to go the rest of my life making grossly imperfect quilts. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty-nine years of life, and I think that even my mother would now affirm, it’s that I should have taken up bartending as a hobby instead of quilting.