Julia Brennan grew up in a family of nearsighted people — so nearsighted that they joked they were blind as bats. She, however, had perfect eyesight.
"Julia can see around corners," her mother would say.
Today, Brennan is a textile conservationist in Washington, D.C, and her work involves everything from fixing tiny holes in antique christening dresses to delicately stitching tears in the Brooks Brothers coat President Lincoln had with him the night he was shot.
While her sharp eyesight is essential to her work, it was not something she thought about consciously when choosing her field. "I simply used it in one of the best professions possible," she says.
Now, a small study published this week out of the University of California, Berkeley backs up what Brennan has experienced throughout her career: Dressmakers may have superior stereoscopic vision. That's the ability to accurately perceive depth and distance between objects — to see in 3-D.
Adrien Chopin, a postdoctoral researcher in visual neuroscience, made the discovery as he was testing the stereoscopic vision of about three dozen people, 13 of them dressmakers. We all use stereoscopic vision when we throw a ball to someone, grab a pencil or park a car, but Chopin noticed that some individuals have much better stereoscopic vision than others.
Chopin found that among the people in his study, dressmakers who spend a lot of time sewing by hand outperformed the study participants from other professions. The results intrigued him, given that prior studies of surgeons and dentists, who also do fine manual work, did not turn up similar results.
In fact, Chopin says, dressmakers are the only group of professionals he and his colleagues have found so far who seem to have enhanced stereoscopic vision.
Is it the endless hours of delicate, manual work that hones dressmakers' stereoscopic skills, or does the field naturally attract individuals with superior eyesight?
Chopin says further study is needed to be certain. But the findings have led him to believe there might be something unusual in the way dressmakers interact with the world.
"It's very fine manual tasks — at close range, with direct feedback," he says. "If you misplace the needle just a little, you get pain. That's direct feedback on your vision."
He hopes his research might eventually help people who are stereo-impaired.
Dr. Rebecca Taylor, a Nashville ophthalmologist and the clinical spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says about 10 percent of the population lacks depth perception, and one cause is poor vision in one eye. She cautions that this is not always correctable and says some problems such as amblyopia, or lazy eye, should be corrected in childhood.
Still, she thinks further study is worthwhile, given how much we use stereo vision in our daily lives. "The more information that we have about depth perception, the better we can be set up to help people who struggle with it," Taylor says.
Of course, good stereoscopic vision will only take you so far. More than 30 years into her career in textile restoration, Brennan says she now needs strong reading glasses and a good source of light to do her best work.
"I often defer to my 20- or 30-year-old colleagues to double-check a stitch or detail now," she says.