Students are hooked on Mercer University professor Mary Ann Drake’s fiber arts and culture class.
In addition to a historical look at fiber arts in different cultures around the world, the students are engaging in hands-on learning — spinning, weaving, knitting and crocheting in class.
Drake, an interdisciplinary studies professor at the school and the program’s chair, is teaching the course this semester through its women’s and gender studies department to a group of 13 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
An avid knitter, Drake said her students demonstrated an interest in the craft she enjoys during free time in her office, which led her to develop the class.
“There is a cultural image of brainless little old ladies who make doilies with no functional value,” said Drake. “Historically, fiber as a function is a tool for the family for clothing and bedding. It’s a way of living with nature, living with the land. You create things to sustain a culture.”
Despite that image in modern times, the role of women in the fiber arts has been important to human survival.
“We wouldn’t exist if women didn’t work the fiber,” Drake said.
One class assignment required students to design their own looms. While Drake provided reference materials, the students had minimal guidance on the project. Senior Hannah Smith, 21, came up with a pocket-sized cardboard loom, while senior Abby Rowswell, 20, created a floor loom that is operated with the hands and feet, modeled after kente looms used in Ghana.
“The more you tell them what to do, the more you constrain them,” Drake said. “If I had said more, Abby wouldn’t have made that.”
Students are making garments such as hats and scarves throughout the semester. In the summer, Drake will take those items to Moldova during the school’s Mercer on Mission trip, a program which blends international service learning with study abroad, from late May to mid-June.
She and associate political science professor Chris Grant will teach academic courses there, focusing on issues affecting the country’s orphans as well as human trafficking. Grant conducted research there on a Fulbright scholarship in 2006, where he made contacts with people such as Irina Nicorici, who is the group’s Moldovan liaison.
For this reason, Drake said the class was well-timed to engage her students in a more global perspective.
“These are good kids who are about the world,” she said. “This has been an inspiration. They’re cranking stuff out.”
The students in Drake’s class had various skill levels in creating fiber arts at the beginning of the semester, she said. Some had no prior experience, while some already knew how to either knit or crochet. The class has fostered an environment in which students can learn from one another.
“We all have teaching moments and learning moments. ... It’s been a good community. We’re all teachers sometime,” Smith said.
Senior Wesley Sanders, 21, who has assisted Drake with other classes, said she piqued his interest in the class after seeing her wear her own hand-knitted socks and sweaters.
Women who have created fabric throughout the years were more resourceful and thoughtful than many give them credit for, Sanders said.
“People don’t think about the intellect they had. It was an eye-opening experience for me,” he said. “The class has two prongs — the academic and the practical.”
Putting the theory into practice has been a critical element of the class, Sanders said.
“You have to have the practical component,” he said. “You can only learn so much by reading about it.”
To contact Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.