Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Scholarly fiber

Senior wins Watson Fellowship to study traditional fiber arts

Jessica Emory entered the world of weavers, spinners and knitters as a child growing up in New Hampshire.

She plans to expand her horizons by working with other artisans around the globe on a yearlong project that will be supported by the Watson Foundation.

A double major in math and biochemistry, Emory won a Watson Fellowship that will allow her to work with and learn from farmers and fiber artists in Cambodia, Romania, Iceland, Mongolia and the Falkland Islands. The Barnstead, N.H., native plans to explore how native crafts are made, marketed and used in each country and discover how these traditional arts maintain their place in modern society.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation awards 40 fellowships to college seniors of unusual promise for a year of independent exploration and travel outside the United States. Nearly 1,000 students from up to 40 selective private liberal arts colleges and universities apply for these awards each year. This year, 148 finalists competed on the national level, after their institutions nominated them in the autumn.

The inspiration for Emory's project stems from her passion for the fading crafts of spinning, weaving and knitting, an interest she first cultivated by accompanying her mother to meetings of the New Hampshire Spinners and Dyers Guild as a toddler. Now an active member of the guild herself, she has demonstrated the craft at historical sites, such as the Musterfield Farm and Museum and the Shaker Village in Canterbury, N.H.

"I may be part of a dying breed from a small New England town, but being a Watson means having the opportunity to become a part of an inclusive international league of artisans who continue to perpetuate traditional crafts and shape the relevance of art," she wrote in her project statement to the foundation," says Emory, whose family farm raises sheep as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

After graduating from Wheaton in the spring, Emory plans to travel to Cambodia to observe how silk weaving and artistry are being used to employ disadvantaged women; to Romania to study the art of the country's famous kilim rugs; and to Iceland and the Falkland Islands to immerse herself in communities that revolve around raising sheep and spinning their wool into clothing and crafts. Along the way, she has been invited to teach a few courses on American fiber culture at the University of Mongolia while she learns about that country's felt-making traditions.

"Traditional arts and crafts are in and of themselves a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries," says Emory. "With the aid of my drop spindle and a traditional New England knitting project, I will take time in each location I visit to join the artistic community before initiating conversations about the nature of their art and eventually being asked to participate in it."

Emory says her desire to study indigenous fiber crafts around the globe satisfies the same urge that has inspired her studies in math and science at Wheaton.

"I've always wondered why things work; probing into the deeper meaning is something that's always fascinated me," she says. "I've always been curious and science is a discipline that allows you to be curious all the time. It's natural to ask why; I love that."

The double major is currently working on a senior honors thesis researching "green" alternatives to traditional synthesis methods.

"I can't talk about my studies and my majors without talking about the professors that helped me get to where I am today," she says. "Professors Straley, Decoste and Sklensky fostered my growth both as a math major and a student. I wouldn't be the person I am today without them. Professors Kalberg, Sweet, Pastra-Landis and Brennessel brought out a scientist in me I never knew existed."

In addition to her studies, Emory is an active member of several campus organizations. For the last several years, she has lived in Spectrum House, a theme residence dedicated to creating a safe space for people of all orientations and genders. She also has served as a preceptor to first-year students and she has worked as a math tutor.

"Being a tutor also comes with a great sense of community," she says. "Professor Straley helps us to be our best and the other tutors are always around to talk out strategies, discuss some math, or just shoot the breeze. It's a really great group of people to be a part of."

When home, Emory works on the family farm and at Frisbee Memorial Hospital in nearby Rochester, N.H. As a nurse's assistant, she conducts an initial triage when people enter the emergency room, provides supports services to patients and clinicians and stocks the facility.  "I really like my job because I have time to spend with patients while at the same time I get to support the nurses, doctors and PAs by making sure all the small details get accomplished."

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program was established in 1968 by the children of Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of International Business Machines Corp., and his wife, Jeannette K. Watson, to honor their parents’ long-standing interest in education and world affairs.  The Watson Foundation regards its investment in people as an effective long-term contribution to the global community.