Africa’s High Fashion Fractals

I love bright, bold colours. You see this in the clothes I wear, the accessories I buy (from scarves to my tablet case), and decoration in my apartment – basically  everything and anything I can make “pop” with colour, I will! I’m also a  big fan of impressionist art, one reason being the vast array of colours the artists used – shout out to the colour chemists who made it possible. It was the rise of synthetic pigments that allowed for the varied colour palette of the impressionists. As well as the impressionist art, I find myself drawn to geometric art and in fact gravitated towards that art form when I took GCSE art textiles (many moons ago).

Bright, varied colours and geometric patterns are found everywhere in African textiles and maybe it is because of my Nigerian heritage I find myself drawn to all these things. I also have a mum who is an African artist and used to keep me out of mischief by teaching me how to do Adire eleko, a form of batik (both free-hand and with thin stencils).

Cat Deeley rocking a Diane von Furstenberg dress. (Mathieu Young/Fox/PictureGroup)

Cat Deeley rocking a Diane von Furstenberg dress. (Mathieu Young/Fox/PictureGroup)

Being a fan of African textiles I’m glad to see African-inspired textiles (and no I’m not talking about the tiger print, safari style textiles!) crossing over into the Western fashion mainstream with real success. Since 2011, it seems everyone has been rocking these bright, bold wax-prints. I even got a goody bag from a science conference which used textiles from West Africa.

Moschino Spring Collection 2013

Moschino Spring Collection 2013

As someone who loves exploring the science all around us you can probably imagine how excited I was when I stumbled upon a talk a few years ago by mathematician Ron Eglash who spent time in Africa where he discovered fractals were used throughout – from arts and crafts to town planning.

Yes, you can learn math  by studying African textiles – fancy that! It seems many African textiles demonstrate fractals – geometric patterns repeated as smaller and smaller versions of themselves (or simply, a small section of a design will look like the whole thing).

Fractals in a piece of African textile

Fractals in a piece of African textile from Ron Eglash’s book, “African Fractals: modern computing and indigenous design”

This is known as self-similarity and when you zoom really close into the design or object it will look exactly the same as it does from a distance! This phenomenon is very much present in nature – think broccoli, lightning, mountains, clouds…the list is endless.

Fractals easy to see in this broccoli

Fractals are easy to see in this Romanesco broccoli

Even though fractals were around much earlier than the 20th century, it wasn’t until 1975 that the term “fractal” was coined. Polish-born French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot first used the term (derived from the latin “fractus”, meaning irregular or fragmented). Known as the founding father of fractals you can now find his designs as computer screen savers…you probably recognize the one below.

A Mandelbrot Fractal

A Mandelbrot Fractal often found as a screen saver. Fractals play a greater role in computer programming than creating screen savers. Computer algorithms can be developed to model shapes in nature

So how are fractals formed? A common way to create a fractal is by using initiators and generators. For ease I’ll explain using the famous Koch curve.

Generation of Koch Curve

Generation of a Koch Curve

If we start with a line (initiator), we can move the middle of the line up so it peaks and creates an equilateral triangle (this is now the generator). We then use the lines on this new equilateral triangle to generate more and more triangles. This process can be repeated in an infinite loop.

I’m new to the area of fractals and there are more categories and more complexity than I have described so far (more info. here).

However, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the coastline paradox (we thank British scientist Lewis Fry Richardson for this mind-boggling observation). Just like lots of things in nature coastlines are fractals and Richardson observed that the length of the coastline depended on the measuring tool used – the smaller the measuring tool, the larger the coastline. This is because the small tool can get into all the nooks and crannies which a larger tool couldn’t. If you also think about it something like a piece of string would also measure the coastline longer than if you were to use a meter ruler because it is flexible enough to fit between rough rocks. To think the coast of Britain can be infinitely long is crazy!

An easy to follow video about fractal maths is here.

With all this talk I wonder who’ll be rocking the fractals during London Fashion Week, which may I add is just around the corner…eek, I can’t wait!

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