Edit : This is an experiment, please don’t use this code in production.

Sass is much more than just a CSS preprocessor. You can do ton of things you’re not supposed to do and won’t ever do except in your crazy demos. This is what is amazing about Sass: it can be use for (pseudo-)programming as well!

A while back, I wanted to create a function to calculate the Levenshtein distance between two strings. The Levenshtein distance is the number of manipulations you need to do to string A in order to have string B. If you want Wikipedia’s definition, here it is:

In information theory and computer science, the Levenshtein distance is a string metric for measuring the difference between two sequences. Informally, the Levenshtein distance between two words is the minimum number of single-character edits (insertion, deletion, substitution) required to change one word into the other.

If you wonder whether I succeeded or failed, I succeeded. You can play with the code directly on SassMeister. So if you ever wanted to calculate the Levenshtein distance between two strings in Sass, now you can. Useless thus essential.

Now back to our main topic: I needed matrices. A matrix is basically a two-dimensional array (or list). For example this is a Sass matrix:

$matrix: ( (0 1 2 3) (1 0 0 0) (2 0 0 0) (3 0 0 0));

Well this was pretty easy. Now what if we want to dynamically create a matrix? Update values? Retreive values? And more stuff? This is getting harder. So I created a couple of functions to ease the pain.

Creating a matrix

JavaScript allows you to instanciate a new array of n cells. This makes creating empty matrices quite easy, you only need a single for-loop like this:

var matrix = new Array(9)
for (var i = 0; i < matrix.length; i++) {
  matrix[i] = new Array(9)

This would be enough to create an empty matrix of 9x9 with all cells filled with undefined. In Sass, you cannot create a new list of n cell. If you do $list: (9), you are basically assigning the number 9 to the $list variable which is not what you want.

Thus I found out it’s much easier to simply instanciate a new list with dummy values to be updated later than creating a matrix with definitive value right away. Let’s do that shall we?

@function matrix($x, $y: $x) {
  $matrix: ();
  @for $i from 1 through $x {
    $tmp: ();
    @for $j from 1 through $y {
      $tmp: append($tmp, 0); // 0 is the filler value
    $matrix: append($matrix, $tmp);
  @return $matrix;

See how we make the $y parameter optional by defaulting it to $x? It makes instanciating squared matrices easier: matrix(5). Little things matter. ;)

Updating a matrix

Being able to instanciate an empty matrix is cool but being able to fill it with real values is even better! What if we had a set-entry function setting given value at given position on given matrix?

@function set-entry($matrix, $coords, $value) {
  $x: nth($coords, 1);
  $y: nth($coords, 2);
  $matrix: set-nth(set-nth(nth($matrix, $x), $y, $value), $x, $matrix);
  @return $matrix;

We could have requested two distinct parameters for $x and $y but I feel like it’s better asking for a 2-items long list ($x $y). It keeps the signature cleaner and makes more sense to me. However we need to make sure $coords is actually a 2-items long list of coordinates, so why don’t we make a little helper for this?

@function _valid-coords($coords) {
  @if length($coords) != 2 or type-of(nth($coords, 1)) != number or type-of(nth($coords, 2)) != number {
    @return false;
  @return true;

Note: I like to prefix private functions with an underscore. By “private” I mean functions that are not supposed to be called from the outside. Unfortunately Sass doesn’t provide any way to privatize stuff.

All we did was checking for the length and the type. This doesn’t deal with out of bounds coordinates but that’s more than enough for now. Anyway, to set a value in the grid it is nothing easier than:

$matrix: set-entry($matrix,  (1 1), 42);

What is also pretty cool is you can use negative indexes to start from the end of columns/rows. So to fill the last entry from the last row of the grid, you’d do something like set-entry($matrix, (-1 -1), 42).

Reading a matrix

Now that we are able to easily set values in the grid, we need a way to retrieve those values! Let’s build a get-entry function working exactly like the one we just did.

@function get-entry($matrix, $coords) {
  @if not _valid-coords($coords) {
    @warn "Invalid coords `#{$coords}` for `get-entry`.";
    @return false;

  @return nth(nth($matrix, nth($coords, 1)), nth($coords, 2));

See how we check for coordinates validity with our brand new helper? I don’t know for you, but I think it looks pretty neat! Anyway, to retrieve a value at position (x y), all we have to do is:

$value: get-entry($matrix,  (1 1)); // 42

Displaying a matrix

What I always found difficult when working with matrices (no matter the language) is actually seeing what’s going on. I need a visual representation of the grid to understand what I am doing and whether I’m doing it properly. Unfortunately my debug function from SassyLists isn’t quite suited for such a case but the main idea is the same. I just had to revamp it a little bit.

@function display($matrix) {
  $str: '';
  @each $line in $matrix {
    $tmp: '';
    @each $item in $line {
      $tmp: $tmp + ' ' + $item;
    $str: $str + $tmp + '\A ';
  @return $str;

This function returns a string like this: " 0 0 0\A 0 0 0\A 0 0 0\A ". As is, it is not very useful but when you couple it with generated content and white-space wrapping, you got something like this:

0 0 0
0 0 0
0 0 0

… which is pretty nice. Basically I used the mixin from SassyLists which takes a string and displays it in the body pseudo-element with white-space: pre-wrap, allowing for line breaks.

@mixin display($matrix, $pseudo: before) {
  body:#{$pseudo} {
    content: display($matrix) !important;

    display: block !important;
    margin: 1em !important;
    padding: 0.5em !important;

    background: #efefef !important;
    border: 1px solid #ddd !important;
    border-radius: 0.2em !important;

    color: #333 !important;
    font: 1.5em/1.5 'Courier New', monospace !important;
    text-shadow: 0 1px white !important;
    white-space: pre-wrap !important;

Since there are two pseudo-elements (::after and ::before), you can watch for 2 matrices at the same time. Pretty convenient when working on complicated stuff or debugging a matrix.

What’s next?

So far we managed to initialize a matrix, set values in it, retreive those values and display the whole thing as a two dimensional grid directly from CSS. This is quite a lot for a first roll with matrices don’t you think?

But what if we want to push things further? While I am not ace with matrices (I never really did extremely well in math), I know someone who is: Ana Tudor. You may be familiar with some of her crazy experiments from CodePen. Anyway, Ana is most certainly a brainiac so she gave me plenty of ideas of functions to ease the pain of having to deal with matrices!

Among other things, there are a couple of functions to swap values and collection of values of position:

  • swap-entries($matrix, $e1, $e2): swaps values $e1 and $e2 from $matrix
  • swap-rows($matrix, $r1, $r2): swaps rows $r1 and $r2 from $matrix
  • swap-columns($matrix, $c1, $c2): swaps columns $c1 and $c2 from $matrix

Some functions to know additional informations on the current matrix:

  • columns($matrix): return number of columns in $matrix
  • rows($matrix): return number of rows in $matrix
  • is-square($matrix): check wether $matrix has as many rows as columns
  • is-diagonal($matrix): check wether all values from the main diagonal of $matrix are set while all other values are equal to 0
  • is-upper-triangular($matrix, $flag: null): check wether all value below $matrix diagonal are equal to 0
  • is-lower-triangular($matrix, $flag: null): check wether all value above $matrix diagonal are equal to 0

… and much more. And because I needed a place to store all those functions I made a GitHub repository so if you feel like contributing, be sure to have a glance!

Also, there is a Compass extension for SassyMatrix now:

  1. gem install SassyMatrix
  2. Add require 'SassyMatrix' in config.rb
  3. @import "SassyMatrix" in your stylesheet

Also, you can play with SassyMatrix directly at SassMeister, so be sure to give it a try. Plus, I’d love to have some feedbacks!