Author Archives: drjuliacollins

Shirts in lectures!

Stitch Lounge

All the hexagons that Madeleine and I cut out during the Stitch Lounge have now been assembled into their patchwork form! I have to thank my friends who’ve been putting up with me doing sewing at every social event, and the television series Castle for providing me with many hours of entertainment whilst stitching. A photo of the final finished piece will have to wait until the exhibition!

Now it’s time for me to get started on the heptagons for our hyperbolic shirt…

In other news, I got to use our Klein Bottle shirt design to make an emergency Klein Bottle for a lecture yesterday. Undergraduate students were learning how to construct new topological spaces from old ones, and one example of this is that you can construct a Klein Bottle by gluing the edges of a square in a particular way.

Making a Klein Bottle by gluing a square

Glue the two red sides (arrows matching) to get a cylinder, then match the blue sides & arrows to get a Klein Bottle

From these instructions it’s pretty hard to see what a Klein Bottle could look like, but it can easily be made with a shirt by turning one sleeve inside out, passing through the front of the shirt and then pinning the two cuffs together. Great to see that The Mathematician’s Shirts is having a good effect on my teaching as well as on my stitching abilities!


ASCUS progress meeting 1


Sharing ideas over biscuits and coffee: (from left) Madeleine, Julia C and Julia M

Last week Madeleine and I met up with Mark Eischeid and Julia Malle from ASCUS to talk about our shortlist of ideas for the project. Mark and Julia are artists from very different walks of life (Mark in landscape architecture and Julia in glasswork) so we were looking forward to getting new perspectives on our ideas from a non-mathematical viewpoint. ASCUS also have the job of finding a venue for our shirty sculptures and we needed to discuss the requirements that some of our sculptures would have. Hopefully we are not being too ambitious!

So, here’s our shortlist of sculptures that we hope to make; indeed, to get started on very shortly!

Klein bottle

A Klein bottle

Klein bottle shirt

A Klein bottle is a famous topological object which has no inside or outside. It was first described in 1882 and only truly lives in 4 dimensions – if we try to draw it in 3 dimensions then it appears to intersect itself. A Klein bottle would be easy to make from a single shirt by passing a sleeve through the main fabric of the shirt and then sewing the cuff to the neck. The bottom of the shirt and the remaining cuff would also be sewn up so that there would be no edges to the sculpture.

Alexander horned sphere shirt

Alexander horned sphere

The Alexander Horned Sphere

The Alexander Horned Sphere is another great object in topology. Normally when we draw a sphere, there is a clear inside and outside, and if we have a loop of string in either the inside or the outside then we can pull the string tight without encountering any difficulties. The horned sphere is a way of drawing a sphere so that loops of string outside of it cannot be pulled tight. Its invention came as a great surprise to the mathematical community and its construction highlights the crazy properties of infinity and fractals. We would like to make this sculpture using the sleeves of ever-smaller shirts as the ‘horns’, and hope we can do a few iterations before it gets too small!

Patchwork geometry shirts

3 different geometries

The three different geometries

The discovery of different kinds of geometry came as another surprise to mathematicians. For centuries, schoolchildren had been taught that there are always 180 degrees in a triangle and that Pythagoras’ Theorem is always true. Not so! Triangles on a sphere have angles that add up to more than 180 degrees and triangles in hyperbolic space (like a saddle shape) add up to less than 180 degrees. It is a great lesson in how mathematicians must always be aware of the axioms they build their theories upon. What things do we take for granted now which will be overturned in the next century? Madeleine and I will create these 3 geometries by attaching patchwork shapes to the bottom of the shirts: hexagons fit together to make flat space, pentagons will make a spherical shape and heptagons will fan out to make hyperbolic space.

Illusion shirt

Channel 4 logo

The Channel 4 logo only appears when seen from the right angle

Moving on to a slightly more philosophical work, we would like to create a sculpture which only looks correct from a certain direction. This might mean that it only looks like a shirt from a particular angle, or that a hidden message is seen when it is viewed a certain way. This would illustrate the nature of mathematics: that problems can look incredibly hard until they are seen in the right way and by someone with the right tools. A particular example is in the work of Edinburgh mathematicians in integrable systems, where there are very complex and often chaotic systems of equations, but these can become tractable when transformed into the correct coordinates.

Compressed sensing shirt/image reconstruction shirt

jigsaw puzzle

How can we reconstruct this image more efficiently?

Finally, we had an ambitious idea to create a series of shirts which each had a small piece of an image on them, and the public would have to find a number of the shirts across the city in order to discover the whole image. The implementation could go in two different ways depending on the kind of mathematics we want to showcase. Firstly there is optimization, which tries to spot patterns in order to find relevant data quickly. For example, Google has to sort through millions of web pages every time it does a search, but it is very efficient at knowing where to look. We could implement this in shirt form by placing the shirts in locations with a common theme; for example, all the Tesco stores. A second piece of mathematics we could look at is the relatively new field of compressed sensing. In reconstructing an image this way, mathematicians take advantage of the fact that lots of data is replicated, so that a large image could be reconstructed by just sampling the pixels in a small number of places. We could have lots of shirts around the city, but only a small number of them need to be found in order to put the whole image together.

Our shirt-making will begin on the weekend of the 24/25th September, during an event at Inspace called Stitch Lounge. There’ll be free use of sewing machines, lots of people around experimenting with crafty ideas and, most importantly, afternoon tea. Come along and see what everyone is up to!

And please do leave comments to let us know which sculptures you are most looking forward to seeing, and why. We would love to hear from you!

First brainstorming ideas

On Friday we had our first session of brainstorming mathematical ideas that could be turned into shirty sculptures. Although there wasn’t a good turnout of mathematicians (academics all seem to be away over the summer!) we had lots of ideas emailed to us beforehand so there was plenty to think about.

Wordle Brainstorm

Take a look at the ideas below and let us know which ones you like best!

– Cut strips into the back of a shirt and braid them;

– Make a Klein bottle shirt by passing a sleeve through the main shirt and sewing up openings;

– Create an Alexander Horned Sphere using smaller and smaller shirts to create the ‘horns’;

– Use seven shirts of different colours and sew them into a torus to demonstrate that 7 colours are needed so that no two regions of the same colour touch;

– Sew shirts into a network or graph, illustrating a particular problem. For example, making a thrackle and designing an accompanying flash game on this website;

– A hyperbolic shirt, sewing in extra material to the hem or sleeves;

– Design a pattern on the shirt which can only be seen when viewed from a particular angle, illustrating work done on integrable systems where a function only looks linear when transformed into the correct coordinates;

– Sew shirts together to incorporate a particular group structure or symmetry, for example the dihedral group;

– Create a ‘hypershirt’, that is, a 3-dimensional representation of a 4-dimensional hypercube;

– Cut a disc out of the front of a shirt and re-sew to illustrate a solution to a puzzle (how to tile the disc with congruent tiles so that at least one tile does not touch the centre);

– Use stuffing to create a 3-dimensional surface representing a particular statistical distribution;

– Cut a shirt into strips and re-assemble using random rules, for example by throwing dice to determine how many strips of a particular colour are used;

– Find a shirt with widely spaced vertical lines, then sew matchsticks on to find an approximation to pi using Buffon’s needle method;

– Use a t-shirt with a distinctive design and cut parts out of it, asking whether the public can guess what the missing pieces are. Image reconstruction is a big topic being explored by mathematicians in Edinburgh!

– Cut and re-sew a shirt (or shirts) to create a Sierpinski gasket or Menger sponge;

– Cut a shirt into strips and re-assemble into a Kakeya set – a picture which contains a line of length 1 in every direction. Amazingly, it is possible to do this so that the picture has as small an area as you want!


Welcome to The Mathematician’s Shirts! Over the next 4 months, mathematician Julia Collins and artist Madeleine Shepherd will be designing and creating a series of sculptures made out of shirts and representing different concepts in mathematics. The shirt has been chosen because it is an iconic and familiar item of clothing and because it also represents the formality of the (largely male) mathematical world.

This project is funded by ASCUS, the Art Science Collaborative, and aims to bring together artists and scientists in new innovative collaborations. The Mathematician’s Shirts will be exhibited in a location not traditionally associated with either artists or scientists, such as a shop window on the High Street, to encourage the public to engage with both the artistic and mathematical ideas behind the sculptures.

In this blog we will follow the progress of the ideas, the making of the sculptures and the public dialogue about them. If you are reading this, please contribute your thoughts!