Textiles in Burman Culture is this year’s winner of the R.L. Shep Award. It was selected as the best book published in 2021 in the field of ethnic textile studies by TSA’s panel of judges. A substantive yet engaging single-author work by Sylvia Fraser-Lu and published by Silkworm Press, the book was chosen from a shortlist of four volumes announced in August. The other three books are Black Bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton, and Commerce in the Atlantic World (Anna Arabindan-Kesson; Duke University Press), Clothing the New World Church: Liturgical Textiles of Spanish America, 1520-1820 (Maya Stanfield-Mazzi; University of Notre Dame Press) and Sea Change: Ottoman Textiles between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean (Amanda Phillips; University of California Press). The award committee strongly recommends all four volumes to TSA members.
Textiles in Burman Culture presents the evolution and development of textiles and garment traditions, spanning the earliest preserved bast fiber textiles found in the Samon River valley burials from ca. 700 BCE to the vibrant weaving centers in today’s Burman heartlands. Fraser-Lu’s book admirably meets one of the most important criteria of the Shep award which seeks to highlight new or previously underreported material. This volume’s comprehensive approach fills a gap in our knowledge of textile histories, traditions and practices in one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in the world. Moreover, it balances treatment of past and present cloth practices, elite and non-elite contexts, religious and quotidian meanings, as well as textiles made and consumed in city centers and in highland communities.
Another central aim of the Shep award is to celebrate works that bridge the scholarly and the popular. Fraser-Lu’s clear and engaging writing style and the book’s wealth of illustrations and diagrams are thoughtfully yet rigorously captioned and situated throughout the work. Readers interested in the technical features of clothmaking will welcome clearly written and illustrated chapters on the fibers, dyes, looms and patterning used in this region. Another of the book’s strengths noted by the panel of judges is the deft use of broad historical perspectives that does not sacrifice the reader’s ability to connect with specific textile expressions. Its treatment of multivalent symbols, such as the lun-taya acheik silk woven tapestry with distinctive designs that express national pride and identity, for instance, are thoughtfully examined as complex expressions; we see them as socially embedded, dynamic phenomena, shaped by regional and indigenous influences as well as by incipient ideologies of national identity before, during and after colonial, socialist, and capitalist transformations. Careful attention to types of cloth used to dress the body (such as in royal courts or robes worn by Buddhist monks) or to ornament or define architectural spaces (such as resplendent wall hangings) are given distinct treatment in separate chapters. The textile production of minority populations such as the Rakhine and Shan are similarly discussed in a standalone chapter. All these attributes of writing style, visual fluency, and cogent organization ensure this profoundly scholarly book’s accessibility to a wide range of readers, bringing the beauty of Burmese textiles and garments to new audiences.
The award committee had the pleasure to read and examine books with 2021 imprints from publishers around the world, each of which was beautifully researched, written and produced. We are especially pleased to award a book coming from an independent press based outside North America and Europe and celebrate with them this author’s achievement.