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‘Panty pulping’: St. Lawrence University students use underwear to draw attention to sexual violence

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CANTON — Students gathered at St. Lawrence University this week, underwear in hand, ready to turn panties into paper in the name of preventing sexual violence.

Margaret E. Mahan, of Portsmouth, R.I., was inspired to create “Panty Pulping” while struggling to cope with a sexual assault she suffered while traveling in Turkey.

Ms. Mahan works with the Peace Paper Project, started by Drew L. Matott of Gouverneur. The project offers paper-making classes, primarily as a form of therapy and artistic expression.

Ms. Mahan came up with the idea of “Panty Pulping,” turning underwear into paper, as a means to use clothing often described as “intimate” to initiate conversations about an even more delicate topic: sexual violence.

She is touring colleges across the country, encouraging students to bring their own underwear and learn about the creative process. Ms. Mahan and Mr. Matott were at St. Lawrence University this week, one of their first stops on their tour of workshops.

The goal, she said, is “using unmentionables to address the unmentionable.”

“It’s a common thread,” she said. “Everyone has underwear.”

Each group of students begins by signing a pledge (written on a piece of paper made from underwear) to help prevent sexual violence; then they get to work.

They cut up their underwear — most bring their own — into one-inch squares. This is then mixed with a substance called abaca, made from banana fibers.

The mixture is dumped into a beater, which separates the fibers from the cloth and turns the whole thing into a uniform mixture.

Students use a screen to pull individual pieces of paper from the soggy concoction.

These are then pressed and dried overnight to create the finished product.

Some students use a silk screening process to print images into the paper as it forms.

These include warnings about the dangers of sexual violence and calls to raise awareness.

After the paper is formed, it is pressed to flatten it and remove excess moisture, then left to dry overnight.

St. Lawrence University senior Sophie B. Miller said she was hooked by the unusual event.

“I love it. I’ve never made paper before, and on Monday I was so excited by it,” she said.

She spent most of her spare time over the last few days helping teach others how to make paper.

“It’s so fun to teach,” she said.

On Friday, the paper was hung in the student union, a demonstration of the work that was done throughout the week and a call against domestic violence.

Art professor Melissa A. Schulenberg said the event is especially good for students who are not art majors, because of the ease with which papermaking can be learned and the importance of the message.

“I think what they do as artists and educators and just as human beings is really important,” she said of the Peace Paper Project.

Ms. Mahan said the theme of the week is one of transformation.

“You’re breaking it down and transforming it into something else,” she said.

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