Simple mathematical rules can be used to create the most unexpected shapes and patterns, and nowhere is this more evident than in the world of plants and shells. In their 2013 project Botanica Mathematica, artist Madeleine Shepherd and mathematician Julia Collins have collaborated to explore how different mathematical knitting rules can mimic the growth of botanical forms.
For example, the idea behind the ‘Binary Tree’ is that there is a main tree trunk which splits into two branches, which each split into two branches, which each split into two branches… until all the stitches are exhausted. It is a very simplified idea of how a tree really grows, but produces specimens which are remarkably similar to real trees.
But nature never produces the same plant twice. In the same way that the environment creates variation within the same species of tree, each crafter will each interpret this pattern in a different way. Some will choose to knit, others to crochet. Some will use a single colour yarn, others will use variegated yarn or will change colour for different branching levels. Some will create a fixed number of rows between each branch, others will create randomly placed branches.
Madeleine and Julia are looking for knitters across the country to pick up their needles, dig about in their yarn stash and have a go at some of their patterns. A simple rule like ‘increase at a constant speed’ can produce crazy varieties of lettuce, kale, coral and even chanterelle mushrooms! Or why not try making a Fibonacci flower with two colours and a rule called an ‘L-system’?
The project will be running for all of 2013 as part of the Year of Natural Scotland and the year of Maths for Planet Earth. Botanica Mathematica will be at the Orkney Science Festival’s Family Day, where visitors can either bring along pieces they have already made or have a short tutorial in making something new.