With a Dress, Kyra Neiman ’17 Stitches Together Lessons from Linguistics 101

Posted February 18th, 2015 at 3:15 pm.

Dress_shot for inside story

For most of the students in Brook Lillehaugen’s Introduction to Linguistics class, the final project meant a term paper. But when the professor offered the option of a creative project in lieu of an essay, Kyra Neiman ’17 picked up her needle and thread.

As Lillehaugen—an assistant professor teaching in the Tri-Co linguistics program—explains, her Linguistics 101 students interview bilingual individuals about their language experiences and then, based on data from those interviews, analyze a particular aspect of the bilingual experience.

“I’m a seamstress,” says Kyra, “so my mind went immediately to some form of fabric art. A dress seemed like the best way to incorporate as many quotes as possible.” In fact, her final design succeeded in incorporating material from all 57 interviews conducted by the class.

Each part of the dress she created relates to a different aspect of bilingualism. For example, because shoulder straps hold up a dress, Kyra’s shoulder straps feature quotations about the people, like parents and teachers, who supported—or held up—the interviewees.

Central to her design is the pattern of handmade ribbons on the bodice and, she explains, that pattern illustrates ideas about connecting to multiple cultures through language: “The interwoven ribbons contain quotes about how language served as a means of accessing multiple cultures,” Kyra explains, while “the ribbons that do not overlap have quotes from people who felt they could not connect to any culture.”

As Lillehaugen explains, Kyra’s dress demonstrates “a deep understanding and analysis of the material.” The quotations that adorn the overskirt reflect the positive aspects of interviewees’ experiences (and together can be read as a poem). Hidden below, on the underskirt, are expressions of loneliness and other difficulties they have encountered.

A Russian major, Kyra signed up for the class to learn about the structure of language at a basic level. But she’s also a seamstress who had a small tailoring business in high school and today sews “constantly at home, usually making historical reproductions or ridiculous costumes,” she says.

At Bryn Mawr, Kyra’s busy schedule limits her to smaller projects, like teaching herself embroidery—a skill that proved useful in creating the world map on her linguistics dress. It traces individual journeys across the globe, with a bead marking beginning and end points. “Each different color of bead has a meaning,” Kyra says. “For example, a red bead means that that person learned a new language because they moved to that location.”

Her final project took Kyra more than 40 hours to complete. “Initially, I planned for 10 to 15 hours,” she says, “but I had too many ideas that I wanted to incorporate, each of which added complexity. I only finished five minutes before it was due on the last day of classes!”

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