Crocheting the Hyperbolic Coral Reef- part one


‘It’s all like an ocean’ cried Dostoevski…”

The Institute For Figuring has crocheted a coral reef: a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world. They’ve put the reef on tour and in spaces all around the globe people are taking up the thread and expanding this delicious example of science and nature in partnership.

The crinkled edges of a deep ocean coral (or a piece of leaf lettuce!) curve and expand in a shape that has perplexed mathematicians for centuries. Those curves – an example of a high-level geometry concept called the hyperbolic plane- were not even defined by geometry theorists until the 19th century. And in the almost 200 years following, mathematicians struggled to find a way to model the complex shape known as the geometric opposite of the sphere.

Then mathematician Daina Taimina picked up her crochet hook and some yarn, and the problem was solved. In 1997, Taimina, of Cornell University, found a way to crochet her way into “hyperbolic space.” Her woolen creations, which resemble crenelated flowers and hair scrunchies, became the first physical models of the hyperbolic plane.


Personally, I still don’t fully understand this concept. I do understand the advantages of living coral (or lettuce or wood ear mushrooms) expanding their surface space over time. It means growth and survival. The notion that it happens in a proscribed fashion that can be defined by a mathematical sequence- huh! Who would have thought? (playing in my head: Inch Worm from Hans Christian Anderson, Danny Kaye singing. I’m not THAT old but this was one of my grandmother’s favorite records and mine, too, because I visited her every Saturday as a young child and we would put it on the “automatic turntable.”)

Since I am a country mouse by nature, fond of lettuce and semi-skilled in fiber arts, I was attracted to this exhibit at the magnificent Chicago Cultural Center. Last stop was the Andy Warhol museum in LA, next stop is at the Man Museum in Sardinia. I found it by accident; after getting my driver’s license I stopped in to admire the history and architecture and lo and behold! The Crocheted Coral Reef. And because I am always pushing myself to make this my kind of town I was excited to learn that The Windy City Knitters were hosting workshops each week throughout the duration of the exhibit.

Thursday I took the bus back downtown and met some remarkable fiber artists who took the time to welcome me and set me on the path of crocheting the hyberbolic plane. If only my high school geometry teacher had been so clever. And yet, my hunch is that he would have come up with this notion about the same time a thousand monkeys typed the complete works of Shakespeare. It took a woman.


I have become completely fascinated with this multifaceted project (no pun intended) so tomorrow I will have Part Two and share with you the environmental implications of the Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef.

(the photos in this post are not mine. The Cultural Center does not allow photos without permission any where in the building so these are from the online site.)

14 responses to “Crocheting the Hyperbolic Coral Reef- part one

  1. Sheesh and I’ve been impressed with my own ability to knit a Harry Potter-esque scarf for my son’s Halloween costume. I’m fairly sure the geometry and environmental implications do not live up to this amazing work! 🙂

    Welcome to WordPress, by the by.

  2. INCREDIBLE. My daughter has been crocheting some very cool hats of late (of her own design) and has inspired me to dig out my hooks and go hunting for yarn. THIS is something entirely different, and once again, inspirational in a whole new way.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. The only thing I ever tried to knit turned out to look more like a condom than anything. That someone came up with the idea to replicate coral, etc., in yarn is truly amazing! Ya’ learn something new everyday, don’t you, if you keep your eyes open!!

  4. It’s an amazing world with amazing people. A crocheted coral reef is just the thing to catch your eye, dear Vicki.

    And here I sit in Niagara Falls NY, stealing wireless internet from Aunt Crazy’s next door neighbor and praying that her pants stay clean this evening.

  5. Miz S, that sentence is a sentence to end all sentences.

  6. Back again, to say thanks for the visit – and you can consult me on anything at any time. I may not, however, have the answer…..LOL

  7. Well I can see how you could knit one, purl two (or vice versa), and pretty soon you would have a sea slug. Or sea cucumber. Probably you would never luck onto a dung beetle….

  8. We don’t have this type of sea life in the Puget Sound.

    I don’t find you a bit crotchety, my dear. xoxo

  9. That is utterly amazing. I would never guess from the photos that the sea life would be crotcheted. MY WORD–there are so many talented people in the world. (and I am not of their number!!)

  10. Sounding in here from the craft world:

  11. Oh… and one more, cartoon this time:

  12. The ending of Wende’s darling, Finnish animated video might give our Vicki a birthday portrait idea.

  13. I love the intersections of art/craft and science/math — could explain why I’m an architect! — and this one has a whimsical aspect that is truly delightful. I’m looking forward to Part II.

  14. That’s quite a yarn, Miss Vicki.

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