Teaching ‘International Relations’ with Conflict Textiles

By Lydia Cole

‘International Relations’ is a broad term which encompasses a range of different issues (e.g. war and peace, climate change, security) which are approached from equally diverse perspectives. For the first-time student (and often much more experienced researchers) the task of understanding its complexities can be daunting, particularly when we deal with the term in the abstract. To counter this, I increasingly use visuals, stories and objects in my teaching to help students explore the subject. I have found the Conflict Textiles collection and my experience of commissioning Stitched Voices and Threads, War and Conflict particularly helpful in this regard. Each textile in the Conflict Textiles collection tells a story, of empowerment, protest, loss and political violence; and through each story it becomes possible to see how people’s lives connect and intersect with global politics. In this blog post I explore a recent experience I had teaching with conflict textiles to two groups of high school students in the Fife area of Scotland.


In June 2018, I was approached to teach two taster sessions on International Relations for the First Chances Project, a partnership between the University of St Andrews, Fife Education and The Robertson Trust aimed at high school students. Students from local schools participate in a programme which helps them to develop their critical skills and provide insight into further study in higher education. In later stages of the project, students attend several sessions where they are given an introduction to a particular subject by lecturers at the university. Given that students are likely to have little or no previous exposure to the subject, sessions needed to give an introduction to ‘international relations’ as a subject of study while simultaneously being as interactive as possible.

When I was approached to provide one of these sessions, I knew that I wanted to introduce the students to the Stitched Voices project. I selected five photographs of the textiles from the Conflict Textiles archive, and provided them to each student before the session. Selecting the pieces, I had several criteria. First, I wanted to provide students with textiles from a range of global contexts. Second, I wanted the textile to be clear when displayed in an A4 colour printed format. Third, I chose to present those textiles to which I had developed a connection through my involvement with Stitched Voices. The textiles that I selected were: La Cueca Sola / Dancing Cueca Alone, Encadenamiento / Women Chained to Parliament Gates, Digital Death, the Embroidered Mexican Pañeulos / Handkerchiefs, and Anti-Apartheid.


The Session

I began the session with a general question: does anyone know what international relations is about? After a pause, a few students silently shook their heads. One student put up their hand, venturing, ‘it’s about relations between governments?’ Looking around the rest of the room, I tried again: ‘Let’s go around and introduce ourselves. Tell me what interested you most about this session.’ As we moved around the room, most of the students indicated an interest in the subject – they wanted to try something new and thought it might be interesting. A couple of answers were more specific – they were concerned with contemporary political issues or the news.

In what followed, I gave the students a brief overview of the study of international relations. Outlining some of the core issues that are studied within international politics, I also gave the students a sense of who international relations was interested in talking about. Addressing key actors such as the state, international institutions, non-governmental actors, and (sometimes) people, I aimed to give students a sense to which the study of international relations was broad and responsive to contemporary global politics in its multiple forms. As I introduced students to some of the hierarchies apparent in international relations, both in practice and as a discipline, I drew attention to the following: ‘Who we look at is important; and often the stories of people and communities are absent.’

The second part of the session focused on the textiles. Before we began discussion, I contextualised the pieces within their broader social, cultural, and political struggles. Particularly, I noted the place and date each textile was made, whether the artist(s) are named or anonymous and talked through some key points about the social movements in which they are situated.

As I split the class up into groups, I asked them to reflect on several questions which prompted them to examine their own connections to the pieces, while also thinking about the stories the textiles were trying to communicate. These were:

  • Which piece do you like most and why?
  • What story is the textile trying to tell us?
  • Why do you think the maker of the textile made the choices that they did?

‘Now it’s your chance to discuss international politics’. At first the groups were tentative, looking at the images in front of them and back to each other. As I worked my way around the groups, I asked them to pick out their favourite piece.

Digital Death
“Digital Death”, Deborah Stockdale, Republic of Ireland, 2014. Deborah Stockdale collection. Photo: Deborah Stockdale.

Overwhelmingly, students gravitated to Digital Death. They told me, ‘we know about that [drones]’. ‘It’s happening now’. They felt ‘less connected’ to the other pieces since they refer to events that happened a long time ago. In comparison, Digital Death seems more ‘immediate’. Yet, drawing attention to the temporal proximity of the Mexican pañuelos, I invited them to reflect further on the feeling of connection to the image.

Mexican Embroidered Handkerchiefs, Fuentes Rojas Collective, FUNDENL Bordamos por la Paz Nuevo León, and Bordados por la Paz Puebla. Photo: Danielle House.

Almost all of the students who picked out Digital Death as their favourite tell me that they are used to seeing images of drones. This was highlighted when one student commented that he did not think its textile depiction was ‘realistic enough’. Students were drawn to this piece because it depicted international politics as they imagined it to be, informed by their familiarity with images of war, violence, and weapons on the news.

Some began to push their insights beyond this immediate connection. One group discussed the use of colours in the piece. They noted that the colours used were generally quite muted, while the image of the little girl used a much brighter material; this made the image stand out. Another group engaged extensively with the composition, noting that the different images were sectioned off ‘almost like different stories or perspectives’. Moving beyond the image of the drone, these insights began to reveal a deeper engagement with the story the textiles were trying to tell. Noticing the multiple frames that are contained within the piece and the visual centring of the little girl, these groups began to engage in an analysis of power relations between the drone operator, the community in the Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan, and the image of the girl.

Not all of the students were drawn to Digital Death. Some named the Chilean arpilleras, La Cueca Sola or Encadenamiento, as their favourite piece. In these discussions, the feeling of connection was far more implicit. The students – most of whom were women – were inspired by the bravery of the women depicted in the textile. Engaging with the bold use of colour and the women’s expressive poses, they suggested that the textiles conveyed a message of strength. In this context too, students drew connections between the textiles and their own experience. In a discussion of La Cueca Sola, for example, one student was particularly struck by the forms that protest might take. Drawing comparisons to images she had seen from the 2017 Women’s March and the #metoo movement, she mused about the myriad forms that women’s protest had taken – in these cases, marches, the sharing stories via social media, dance and stitching. Here too, the student was engaging in an analysis of international politics, drawing connections across global sites of protest and resistance. 

“La Cueca Sola | Dancing Cueca alone”, Anonymous, Chile, 1989. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Oshima Hakko Museum collection, Japan. Photo: Tomomitsu Oshima. 
“Encadenamiento | Women chained to parliament gates”, Chile, 1980s. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Arpillera collection, Kinderhilfe, Chile/Bonn. Photo: Martin Melaugh.

Some Final Reflections

One of the most important things that I was reminded of in this session – and really, it should not be a surprise – is that each of these students already knew (something) about international politics. Though many approached the classroom unsure what international relations was, most students were, by the end, able to confidently discuss the different artistic choices made in the textiles and how this related to the story each was trying to tell. This, I think, is why I have found the textiles such an important teaching tool.

In my experience of using Conflict Textiles in teaching, I find that student’s initial connections are almost always one of familiarity. Overwhelmingly, teaching international politics in the UK, students are drawn to Digital Death because they ‘recognise’ the scene that it depicts. While there is perhaps more to be unpacked about the relationship between popular imaginaries and the UK’s complicity in global violence, enabling students the space to reflect on, think through and (perhaps) challenge their own feelings of connection to this imagery is important. In the context of the First Chances sessions, students’ analysis often began with objects, images, and issues that seemed familiar. Yet, through drawing out stories and through drawing connections between and across the textiles, students were able to view the textiles in ways which drew them outside their initial perspectives and into the heart of critical international relations. 

Dr Lydia Cole is an Associate Lecturer in the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews. Her research explores how sexual and gender-based violence and its subjects are framed in the context of post-conflict justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina, examining the possibilities and limits of legal-bureaucratic, psychological, and testimonial forms of recognition. She is interested in creative methodologies for studying international politics, and was a member of the commissioning team for Stitched Voices. Currently, she is organising the exhibition Threads, War and Conflict, which will be launched in St Andrews on 3rd April 2019.

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