Making Math Authentic: Why Sewing?

It has been one of my goals this year to make math authentic, when and where possible. To make it hands-on, active, and practical. To not just be numbers on a page filled with hypothetical situations, but to have the problems come to life. It’s not the only way we practice math but it is part of our repertoire.

My hope is that by making math real, when students do encounter the hypothetical, they will have a context for their understanding. They will see the relevance because they’ve experienced it.

One of the ways we have begun to do this is through sewing. As we go, the process of creating through sewing has brought many grade four curriculum expectations to life and provided many opportunities for prompting students’ thinking.

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Planning

We begin by planning. What do we want to make? What size should it be? What proportions should it be? By what amount should we increase the size of our design to account for a seam allowance? Do we have enough of our chosen fabric to create the design? Besides the fabric for the main shape, what other materials do we need (e.g., ribbon, elastic, other decorations) and what length will they need to be?

  • estimate, measure, and record length, height, and distance, using standard units;
  • estimate, measure using a variety of tools and strategies, and record the perimeter and area of polygons;
  • select and justify the most appropriate standard unit to measure the side lengths and perimeters of various polygons;
  • determine, through investigation, the relationship between the side lengths of a rectangle and its perimeter and area;
  • pose and solve meaningful problems that require the ability to distinguish perimeter and area

Prototyping

We make a pattern with paper to test our design (and if it proves to be a success, we can use it to trace onto our fabric).

  • draw items using a ruler, given specific lengths in millimetres or centimetres;
  • draw the lines of symmetry of two dimensional shapes, through investigation using a variety of tools;
  • identify, perform, and describe reflections using a variety of tools;
  • create and analyse symmetrical designs by reflecting a shape, or shapes, using a variety of tools and identify the congruent shapes in the designs.

Creating

After careful planning and creating a pattern, we cut out our fabric. How should we cut the fabric to ensure the least waste? How should we arrange the template on the fabric to take into account the fabric’s patterning and the patterning we want on my final product?

Now begins the magic of turning two dimensional shapes (flat pieces of fabric) into a three dimensional object. Does everything go according to plan? What adjustments must we make along the way to account for human error in cutting or sewing? What edges should we sew first, second, last so that we take into account the constraints of the abilities of the sewing machine?

  • construct three-dimensional figures, using two-dimensional shapes;
  • describe, extend, and create a variety of geometric patterns, make predictions related to the patterns, and investigate repeating patterns involving reflections;

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Throughout

We’re hitting a number of number sense goals, including using decimals and fractions. Lots of measuring tapes or sewing ideas use both imperial and metric measures – so inevitably we end up discussing inches and therefore fractions of an inch vs centimetres and millimetres. It’s an interesting way to investigate the difference between the two systems. Even though that comparison isn’t part of our curriculum, counting by decimals and fractions is, as well as comparing fractions – so pulling in the imperial system is one way to give a practical context to fractions.

We may also be adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing as we go. Besides calculating measurements, we can also pull in discussion about cost and money amounts. Which design would be the most cost effective use of materials? We can talk about elapsed time and the cost of time. How much should we sell this for, in order to make a profit, considering the cost of materials and paying ourself an hourly wage? If one copy costs $X, how much would it cost us to make Y of them? We can talk about economies of scale – buying materials in bulk or streamlining production processes.

  • read, represent, compare, and order whole numbers to 10 000, decimal numbers to tenths, and simple fractions, and represent money amounts to $100; 
  • demonstrate an understanding of magnitude by counting forward and backwards by 0.1 and by fractional amounts; 
  • solve problems involving the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of single- and multi-digit whole numbers, and involving the addition and subtraction of decimal numbers to tenths and money amounts, using a variety of strategies; 
  • demonstrate an understanding of proportional reasoning by investigating whole-number unit rates.

Conclusion

Sewing, as one option as part of a larger approach to teaching and learning math, has proven to be an enjoyable and rich way to play with numbers. With very strong connections to measurement, geometry and number sense, students are able to make connections across strands and dig deep into the “thinking” and “application” pieces of the achievement chart – something we know has been identified as an area of need in our system. It also pulls in all of the mathematical processes – problem solving, reasoning and proving, reflecting, selecting tools & computational strategies, connecting, representing and communicating.

On the qualitative side of things – sewing has been a powerful motivator. Students feel such a sense of pride in creating something real and tangible. It has been a joy to watch students dive in and tackle challenges head on, fixing problems, trying again and surprising themselves and their families with what they can create.

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