Crafting design futures in Myanmar with the British Council

By | |

Plymouth College of Art’s Associate Dean Design, Paul Singleton MA (RCA), has been working in Myanmar in Southeast Asia as part of the British Council’s Crafting Futures programme, which supports the future of craft around the globe through international collaboration, by strengthening economic, social and cultural development through learning and access.

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, this project aims to effectively overcome barriers preventing the textile industry in Myanmar from providing inclusive economic opportunities.

Researching Myanmar’s textile industry

Paul said: “My first trip to Myanmar was in August 2017, for a three week research project to better understand the textiles industry there. We travelled from Yangon and zig-zagged to the north of the country, meeting small scale textile weavers and industrial units, as well as NGOs (non-governmental organisations) working in various other types of industries across Myanmar, and other educational and governmental departments dealing with educational standards and opportunities in that part of the world.

“We learned a lot about traditional textile manufacture in Myanmar and how textiles in the region were manufactured and consumed, both locally and internationally. The most common use for textiles in the country is in the manufacture of longyis, a wraparound sarong-like skirt worn by men and women. Longyis worn by men are sometimes referred to as paso, and longyis worn by women called htamain.

“There are over 135 tribes and ethnic groups in Myanmar, and every one has a traditional pattern and colour, which means that within Myanmar you can recognise members of each tribe and ethnic group by the pattern of the textiles that they’re wearing. The vast majority of weavers in Myanmar are only weaving textiles in those traditional colours and patterns, but their markets are shrinking because of the import of cheaper replicas from Thailand and China.

“Historically, the families that we met in Myanmar have always woven, passing these skills from generation to generation. Weaving is a family business that often runs in parallel to small-scale farming. With the markets for their products in decline, it became clear during our visit that this was a problem that needed to be addressed from the perspective of global textile business. We had to visit centres of textile education, such as Saunders Weaving and Vocational Institute, to understand whether the people studying there were learning what other opportunities there were globally to repurpose the patterns and colours of their traditional garments, and what other production opportunities are available worldwide for people with their skill-sets.

Developing a new kind of textile design curriculum

“Based on everything that I learned during that initial visit, I worked with the British Council to help develop the curriculum and educational package for students of textile design at the Saunders School and 13 other vocational weaving schools. I returned to Myanmar in January 2018 to run two weeks of experimental workshops around textiles and teaching methods. Working with teachers from a variety of vocational schools we explored the value of group working and looked for alternative practises to the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ approach, including peer-to-peer conversations, exploratory group workshops and utilising the internet as a tool to discover current trends and knowledge.

“The groups I worked with were really open minded and keen to find new ways of teaching to inspire their students. Our intention was to develop an approach to education in Myanmar where the student becomes the active researcher, developing an understanding of what it means to design and originate something new, rather than only replication historic patterns.

“With very little experience of designing ‘new’, being creative with pattern colour and texture, the teachers explored new concepts such as storyboards, colour trends and colour theory, and application ideas for export markets using traditional patterns as the reference point. The workshops concluded with a two-day design event to collectively create a new carpet design.

The future of textile manufacture in Myanmar

“Since returning to the UK, I’ve worked in collaboration with the British Council to create a package of teacher support manuals and presentations for use in Myanmar, as well as writing a creative textile design module which addresses issues including design research, investigating global design models and design trend styles, and how to analyse cultural and historical reference points to create new designs suitable for Western export.

“We want small-scale weavers and textile manufacturers in Myanmar to develop an understanding of the ways that textiles are used internationally, and the business models that would need to be adopted in order to phrase their designs in a contemporary way and address western markets with a price point that would radically increase the income gain for some of the poorest people in the world.

“In June this year I’m planning to return to Myanmar to start delivering a model to teachers and students of how to put this new creative textile design module into action. And we’re offering an MA in Creative Education at Plymouth College of Art to a member of staff from Saunders Weaving and Vocational Institute, to help embed these new skills and hopefully lead to further teacher and student exchanges.”

Design as a way of life

Paul Singleton MA (RCA), is a textile and surface pattern designer, working with well-known brands such as Macy’s of New York, Urban Outfitters, Harlequin, Samsung, Desigual, LG, and Samsung. He has built design teams in France and the UK and has a vast wealth of experience in the commercial world of design and decoration.

Prior to arriving in Plymouth, Paul held senior positions in education; Programme Leader of BA (Hons) Printed Textiles at Loughborough College of Art and Design, Head of BA (Hons) Printed, Knitted and Woven Textiles at Shenkar College, Israel, Senior Lecturer in BA (Hons) Interior Design, Leeds Metropolitan University.

Crafting Futures

The British Council’s Crafting Futures programme supports the future of craft around the globe, by strengthening economic, social and cultural development through learning and access. Crafting Futures’ projects support practices and people, through research, collaboration and education.

Through international collaboration, Crafting Futures creates new networks and opportunities for shared learning between the UK and other countries around the globe. The programme supports research and education in craft, ensuring our projects are relevant and the quality of creative practice is preserved and continues to develop. Crafting Futures offers designers and artisans access to knowledge and expertise, new markets and new audiences, ensuring the value of craft is appreciated more broadly and knowledge can continue to be shared within the sector. The programme is currently active in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Latin America.