Semester at Sea textiles class weaves together a view of Myanmar

Mary Littrell in Myanmar
Kun Schwe describes her fabrics as Professor Mary Littrell looks on

Story by Sean Meeds, Semester at Sea shipboard multimedia journalist

A day of browsing fabric shops, markets, galleries and pagodas exposed Spring 2017 Semester at Sea voyagers to a fresh perspective on life and art in Myanmar/Burma.

Students in the Historic Textiles class taught by Professor Mary Littrell, former head of CSU’s Department of Design and Merchandising, started their in-port field class by visiting the Yoyamay Textile Gallery in Yangon. The students bunched together in the small shop and listened to Director Khun Schwe describe what she went through to own and operate the gallery. Lacey O’Brien, a public relations major from the University of Georgia, was amazed to hear the amount of physical labor Schwe put into her pieces.

SAS Student Lacey O'Brien
Lacey O’Brien inside the Sone-Tu Gallery

“She told us that she used to walk over 20 miles in one day just to sell her textiles,” O’Brien said. “It’s amazing how much work was put into her art.”

Schwe brought out examples of traditional clothes and fabrics designed for specific purposes.

“She brought out her favorite piece that tribal leaders wear to signify their status,” O’Brien said. “I loved seeing her favorite work. It became my favorite piece as well.”

‘Significance of textiles in-country’

“It’s interesting to see the significance of these textiles in-country,” said Caroline Jones, a marketing major from Colorado State University. “There are often cultural and religious aspects behind each textile’s use and meaning.”

Students were astonished to hear how Schwe not only put her seven children through college (her youngest is attending Grinell College in the fall), but is also giving back to the community of weavers she employs in rural villages by putting money aside to help the women have better access to basic necessities.

“I loved how she is going to pay back the weavers,” said Cassandra Taylor, a graphic design student from Chapman University. “She’s going to be taking care of them by giving them better access to water and working toilets.”

After each student found two pieces of different textiles to compare/contrast for their class paper, it was on to the Sone-Tu Gallery, operated by Director May NiNi. The gallery is part of an effort to preserve and record the woven history of NiNi’s native village. In the past, patterns and weaving techniques were only passed down orally. NiNi is hoping to keep that history alive by writing down and photographing pieces woven together by women from different generations.

Sone-Tu weaver
A Sone-Tu weaver demonstrates a backstrap loom for students

Weaving demonstration

The students were given a brief lecture and video presentation before walking outside to see the tools and methods used to craft the intricate pieces of art. Alina Iwan, a biological sciences major from Elon University, was in awe of the painstaking effort it took to create the intricate pieces.

“To see the women put on the backstrap and watch it take them minutes to do just one line on the fabric really puts things into perspective,” Iwan said. “Before, when I was in the market, I thought that many of these pieces were overpriced. Now after seeing the work that goes in to making them, the price now makes sense.”

The day concluded with a visit to the fabled Shwedagon Pagoda, where students were instructed to analyze the use of textiles in a site constructed almost entirely of hardened materials.

After a day of observation and examination, Jones reflected on how the hands-on experience in port made the class uniquely enjoyable.

“I was unsure about taking this course because I had taken a textiles class before that focused more on production versus the significance of each textile,” Jones said. “But this is definitely my favorite course. I get to see examples of what we learn in every country, and I know the reason behind each one.”

Learn more about upcoming voyages with Semester at Sea, as well as financial aid information, at The CSU Education Abroad office is also an excellent resource for interested students and has information on Semester at Sea financial aid designated specifically for CSU students. The Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

This article originally appeared on News from the Helm.

CSU University Communications Staff