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Woven Enchantment

Forty years ago, David Fraser was enchanted by weft-twined Bedouin textiles found in Cairo bazaars. Fraser, an internationally recognized epidemiologist and Swarthmore president from 1982 to 1991, subsequently mastered the weaving technique, the world’s oldest, and wrote the definitive book on the subject. 

Since 2000, Fraser and his attorney-wife, Barbara, have studied and collected rare antique textiles in the mountainous Southeast Asian settlements of the Zo tribal peoples (also known as Chin), which comprise about 50 related linguistic groups. As the only recent Zo collectors known to have worked in the field, the Frasers have slept on mats, eaten ceremonial mithan (a domesticated ox), and gotten stranded crossing rivers. The research culminated in their award-winning 2005 book, Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles from Myanmar, India and Bangladesh

Last winter, the Frasers acted as curatorial consultants for a Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, which relied heavily on their own collection. Art of the Zo: Textiles from Myanmar, India and Bangladesh featured everyday and ceremonial pieces, including colorful wedding blankets, loincloths, skirts, mantles, and shrouds reflecting the cultural traditions and artistic skill of these groups. A sample work in progress was displayed on a backstrap loom, on loan from Fraser, built by a Zo man.

The Frasers plan at least one more collecting trip, this time to the home village of their Yangon, Myanmar-based dealer. Why their shared passion for learning about Zo textiles? “We have no business doing this except that we’re liberally educated,” Fraser says with a smile. 

Weaving Science and Art

Former Swarthmore president puts a liberal arts twist on fabric sculpture.

Is there a connection between epidemiology and fiber art? David Fraser, a distinguished practitioner of both, describes himself as “trying to find patterns in my environment.”

Polymath Fraser, who led the public health teams that discovered the causes of Legionnaires’ disease and toxic shock syndrome, was Swarthmore’s 12th president from 1982 to 1991. During his tenure, he was known as “the basket-making president,” he notes wryly.

In 2006, after years spent studying antique Southeast Asian textiles and weft twining, Fraser set out to learn ply-split braiding, another traditional weaving technique. Though it is used in Northwest India for camel saddle straps, Fraser was interested in exploring sculptural forms made possible by the very thick material produced.

This space-efficient textile-making involves only a wooden needle (called a gunthani) and cords of waxed linen or paper ribbons, all of which Fraser makes himself. The needle is slipped between the plies of one cord, catches a second cord and pulls it through the created space, a process that is repeated multiple times. With initial guidance from an expert English weaver friend, Fraser has made more than 200 fiber creations using this technique. Many of them are featured on his website and described in his book, Ply-Split Braided Baskets: Exploring Sculpture in Plain Oblique Twining.

In an early piece, Fraser mimicked an effort of his mentor, starting with three cords at the center, each of which interacted with the other two, creating a triangle of cords that eventually became a basket (seen in image No. 1). Later, Fraser used four, five, and six cords to see what effect the different numbers had on the finished piece.

Fraser also explored combining multiple baskets in interesting ways. Some of the pieces that he describes as looking “like mushrooms or forests” are really combinations of upside down baskets. (e.g., image No. 2.)

In a variation on the multiple basket idea, Fraser wondered: Will a technique that creates a basket with very thick fabric allow a similar basket to pass through it? Early answers to this question can be seen in image No. 3. In later variations on this same idea (image No. 4), Fraser worked out a solution in which each of five shallow baskets passes through the one next to it.

Fraser enjoys investigating mathematical ideas in his artwork, especially using triangles. In the purple spiral shown in image No. 5, Fraser notes that there are six isosceles right triangles that are forced, because of the structure, to have the leg of one triangle aligned with the hypotenuse of the adjacent one.

He says, “And that won’t work! Pythagoras tells us that can’t be done in Euclidean space because the hypotenuse is longer than those legs, but here they’re forced to be that way.” He continues, “What you see is the hypotenuse of one triangle wrapped around the leg of the adjacent one that it’s forced to align with, which causes distortion. And you get cupping and scalloping of the edge and all sorts of interesting things that come from that geometric mismatch.”

In another experiment with triangles, image No. 6 shows six isosceles right triangles, some oriented in one direction and some inverted. Fraser notes, “Where they’re flipped, hypotenuse matches up against hypotenuse and there’s no distortion. Where they aren’t flipped, there’s distortion. So the whole shape of the basket depends on what the order is of the flipping.”

The black and white piece in image No. 7 was exhibited in a juried international craft show in Wayne, Pa., last December, and other work has been shown in galleries and museums elsewhere in the country. One of his sculptures is now part of the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin, America’s largest contemporary craft museum, and another is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Fraser’s systematic exploration of ply-split braiding’s underlying mathematical structure reminds him of the kind of thinking he’s done as an epidemiologist, comparing rates of occurrence of phenomena under different circumstances. In fact, inferring the underlying cause of disease from that process was his occupation in the 1970s at the Centers for Disease Control. In his work at Swarthmore and more recently with the Aga Khan, developing higher education and health initiatives in South Asia and Africa, Fraser has repeatedly found himself returning to this foundational liberal arts mentality.

“It involves curiosity and an ability to work across disciplines,” he says.