Earlier this year students and staff at Plymouth College of Art hosted a ten-day visit from three expert weavers from Myanmar, Southeast Asia, for a bilateral cultural exchange as part of the British Council’s Crafting Futures programme.
Students from the college’s Foundation Diploma in Art & Design, BA (Hons) Textile Practices, BA (Hons) Printed Textile Design & Surface Pattern and Extended Diploma in Art & Design (Fashion & Textiles) qualifications took part in guest lectures, masterclasses and workshops led by the weavers from Saunders Weaving School in Mandalay during the visit, which followed three trips from our academic team to develop vocational courses at weaving schools across Myanmar.
Weaving is one of Myanmar’s most valuable domestic industries, practised alongside small-scale farming by families that have passed these skills down from generation to generation. However, the market for traditional weaving and textiles products in Myanmar is shrinking because of the import of cheaper products from neighbouring countries and changing because of increasing tourism in the region.
Plymouth College of Art has been working with the British Council for the past three years to support Myanmar’s textile sector. Helping further develop the economic futures of the country’s weavers, the college works with Myanmar’s weaving schools to develop an educational programme addressing these needs, based on the models that Plymouth College of Art use for its student final major projects at pre-degree and undergraduate level.
Myanmar weavers Khaing Tha Zin Moe and Khin Lai Lai Phyu said: “Our main goal as teachers visiting England was to learn about the teaching methods employed at Plymouth College of Art, and to know more about the differences between our two countries. In Myanmar schools, we ask students to choose their specialism before even trying the course, but at Plymouth College of Art the students learn lots of creative techniques and materials before specialising. I’d like to take this technique back to my country.
“Bringing teachers from Saunders Weaving School in Mandalay to teach at Plymouth College of Art is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students that they’re unlikely to find anywhere else in the UK.” —Madalaine Blyth, Pre-Degree Curriculum Manager for Art
“Cultural exchanges like these matter so much because, in the age of globalisation, every country is connected to each other. The textiles and clothing styles of different countries are deeply connected to their culture and history. We have so much to learn from each other, by exchanging perspectives and applying what we learn to our own work. The visits between Plymouth College of Art and Myanmar have been so fruitful for all of us and we’re very grateful for this opportunity.”
Madalaine Blyth, Pre-Degree Curriculum Manager for Art, and Matias Shortcook, Dean for Pre-Degree, travelled from Plymouth College of Art to Mandalay in November 2019 to support the teaching staff as they developed a final exhibition of work from the Crafting Future Project. The exhibition displayed and assessed textiles work created during the first year of teaching at Saunders Weaving School, based on the curriculum developed with Plymouth College of Art.
Madalaine Blyth said: “One of the real strengths about weaving and the way weaving is taught in Myanmar, is that it’s steeped in such rich tradition. So much of their focus is on where the pattern, textures, colours and techniques come from and what story they tell. In comparison, what we do here is look to the future and think about what’s next, and how textiles can be purposeful and meaningful, bringing together ethical and environmental impacts. Bringing our different approaches together allows us to look in all directions.
“Textile patterns in Myanmar are often born from specific regions and might communicate a social class or group. Myanmar is going through the process of gaining intellectual proprietary rights to different prints and patterns made in their country. It’s like Champagne in France, it’s symbolic of who they are as people and how they express themselves.”
“Bringing teachers from Saunders Weaving School in Mandalay to teach at Plymouth College of Art is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students that they’re unlikely to find anywhere else in the UK. Imagine being 18 years old and studying your Foundation Diploma to sample all kinds of different creative techniques and materials, and learning from a master of their craft in Southeast Asia who has learned from a long line of weavers.
“For a number of years, we’ve worked in partnership with the British Council as part of the Crafting Futures programme, a relationship that developed from the success and reputation of our Making Futures conference. We want our students to have the opportunity to think beyond their studio, about the wider impact of the materials they work with and the cultural references they draw from. Having that broader understanding of where their work fits on an international stage gives students a better understanding of who they are and how to translate their creative studies into real-world applications.”
“Cultural exchanges like these matter so much because, in the age of globalisation, every country is connected to each other. The textiles and clothing styles of different countries are deeply connected to their culture and history.” — Khaing Tha Zin Moe and Khin Lai Lai Phyu, Saunders Weaving School
Holly Philpotts, a BA (Hons) Printed Textile Design & Surface Pattern student, who joined Plymouth College of Art from Wiltshire, said: “Meeting the weavers from Myanmar was a great experience. They introduced us to their textiles alongside the history and methods behind their work. I enjoyed learning how to weave from them. Their session really showed how skilled they are as craftswomen and how they have mastered their trade. I also had the privilege of showing them through my recent textiles collection inspired by India and it was amazing to have their feedback on my work."
Crafting Futures Myanmar is supporting the transformation of Saunders Weaving and Vocational Institute (SWVI) in Amarapura, Mandalay, into a Centre of Excellence through an innovative pilot model, which will be adapted to 13 other schools in Myanmar.
Working with Plymouth College of Art, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the Small Scale Industries Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, the project is developing the skills of teachers, young women and professionals, working towards the sustainable growth of the textile sector through education, cultural revitalization and a social business approach. With integrated project research and learning, the project aims to effectively overcome barriers preventing the textile industry in Myanmar from providing inclusive economic opportunities.