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Craftsman takes textile art in new directions

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YARDLEY, Pennsylvania — The epidemiologist seeks the common thread among people infected with disease. The weaver seeks to make thread uncommon.

Bucks County's David Fraser has done both, battling Legionnaire's disease in Philadelphia and Lassa fever in West Africa, and as a self-educated expert and practitioner of textile skills at least a thousand years old.

Fraser, who lives in Lower Makefield Township, says epidemiology is "low-tech science." The doctor compares rates of illness among patients exposed, or not, to specific factors.

"It's a matter of sifting through the pattern," he says. But in weaving, the practitioner must "find a way of arranging the threads."

Fraser's interest in ancient textile techniques dates from the 1980s, when he was president of Swarthmore College.

He visited another doctor-turned-weaver in England, who told him of large, heavy woven saddle bags used in Rajasthan in western India.

After many travels and a change of career — from researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to head of Swarthmore to researcher of the textile art of weft twining — Fraser and his wife, Barbara, found one of the bags in remote western Rajasthan.

Fraser hauls out the bag and opens it on the floor of his living room. It is weighty and adorned with ornately woven exotic script, ancient symbols and peacocks.

Fraser has studied the piece, but even he can't find where the threads that form it begin and end. The bag seems to contain within itself the intersection of philosophy and craft.

So it is in Fraser's work. He uses a technique called ply-split braiding to make sculptural forms that sometimes resemble vessels, sometimes baskets, and other times abstract, organic forms defined by the nature of plied cord.

"He sort of takes them (braided forms) to their ultimate end," says Dilys Blum, senior curator of costume and textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Fraser is a consulting curator and a member of the costume and textile advisory committee.

"He's really amazing at working with all kinds of textile techniques, indigenous techniques, and sort of looking at techniques ... from a mathematical process."

Fraser and his wife, Barbara, are serving as consulting curators for the museum on an exhibit planned for 2015 that deals with Burmese textiles, which they collect and have extensively researched.

He twists his own waxed linen or sisal cord, using a power drill, a few cup hooks and a simple rope-making disc to achieve a tighter ply than commercial cord.

"The tight plying means that the resulting fabric holds its shape," he says. "Sculpture should not sag."

Nor does it, when made by the painstaking and deceptively simple craft — using a homemade tool that consists of a handle supporting what looks like the eye end of a needle made of wood.

Split-plying is a matter of threading a piece of cord through the eye, then inserting it between the twists of a different section of cord — two plies on one side, two on the other — and pulling it through.

In this way, Fraser combines different colors in complex patterns and shapes. One of his works is composed of intersecting planes of different colors, a technique that took him a year to devise.

Another basket achieved subtle volume when Fraser aligned the hypotenuse of one right triangle with the leg of the right triangle next to it. The result is a sculptural cupping of the fabric.

Fraser was born in Abington Hospital and lived in Newtown in his youth, where his father, Grant Fraser, taught mathematics at George School.

The younger Fraser graduated from George School and Haverford College, then trained as a physician at Harvard Medical School. Among other accomplishments at the CDC, he helped solve the mystery of toxic shock syndrome.

At Swarthmore, he expanded course offerings and established several new academic programs. He also challenged a mandate linking federal financial aid to military draft status.

Around 1980, Fraser discovered a book by Irene Emery, "The Primary Structures of Fabrics," which opened a vista into the ancient technique of weft twining.

He set out to learn everything he could about the craft and learned so much, he wrote his own work on the subject, "A Guide to Weft Twining and Related Structures with Interacting Wefts," published in 1989. (He and his wife later published "Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles," about the Burmese weavers.)

From weft twining, Fraser moved on to split-ply braiding as practiced by British surgeon Peter Collingwood, who lived and worked in an old schoolhouse in Colchester, England.

It was Collingwood who called Fraser's attention to the saddle bags, which he and Barbara tracked down in India only to find "they were all in antique dealers' collections," Fraser recalls.

The couple finally found a well-informed local, learning that the bags were used by Jains, who are members of an Indian religious minority.

"They tend to be bankers," says Fraser. "They would go out in camel caravans, lending and collecting money."

Through his friendship with Collingwood, who was an authority on the technique, Fraser took up split-ply work.

"It's a textile technique," he explains, sitting in a chair by a window that constitutes the simplest of all workspaces for one of the most elemental forms of fiber work.

"I consider weaving a technical term, and if one's using terms technically, I wouldn't call it weaving . . . I don't think many people have heard of it. It's probably very, very old.

"One's dealing with how a thread moves through a fabric — that interests me. I can settle in and enjoy the process."

At a certain point, Fraser showed his work to Elisabeth Agro, a curator of American crafts at the art museum. "He was very interested in strict technique. He had very beautiful examples of that form (and) he wanted to know how he could jump into the craft realm," she says.

She recalls offering a very straightforward critique: "'This is beautiful, but where is David Fraser in this work? You've mastered this technique, but if I were doing this countless years, I could do the same thing.'

"And he understood. A few years later, I saw his work, and saw that he had the flair. I was very pleased. Not every artist can take that kind of comment.

"He's not only found this new voice (for) four or five years now, I expect to see him grow and grow. It's wonderful."


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Information from: The Intelligencer, http://www.theintell.com

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