Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The conservation of a 34-star American Flag

by Barbara Owens

Americans have always cherished and proudly honored our Grand Old Flag. But it was not until 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson issued a presidential proclamation to establish June 14th as national flag day. June 14th is significant as it also commemorates the same day in 1777 when, by resolution, the Second Continental Congress adopted the official flag of the United States. And of course the US army also celebrates their founding on this same day in 1775.

The flag has undergone a tremendous amount of change in the past 230 + years. Traditionally, each July 4th, the flag would be updated to incorporate any additional states. And so, as each state entered, a new flag with an additional representative star was born.

Rare 34 star US Flag from the Gettysburg Visitor's Center
Illustration of US Flag with 34 stars 1861-1863
Let me take you back to 1861. Lincoln is president, the flag has 34 stars, and it will remain this way for just two short years.  (sidenote: A flag with 34 stars is very rare and no two are really alike because the "rules" for flag making were pretty loose - does this sound like another blog entry - yes! look for "Flags, Flags, and More Flags", in the next few weeks). The United States battles within its own borders in the early days of the Civil War and each citizen is trying to do their part. Enter William Clark, owner of the steamship Oregon who tenders his boat free of charge to move the sick and wounded and transport soldiers up and down the Hudson River bound for New York or Albany. Clark’s daughters, Sarah and Clara, hand-stitch a flag of substantial proportions to fly from the Oregon. The flag, measuring 109” x  80”, now makes its home at the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook, New York.

Flag conservation, historic textiles
Close up view of the Oregon flag's stripes
Flag conservation by conservator Gwen Spicer, historic flags, silk, damage
Close up view of Oregon's stars
By 2010, the flag was in tatters and desperately required conservation. The flag had two main challenges: its condition and its size.  Measuring over 9 feet in length, working on this flag was going to require a lot of room and some pretty big tables. As we laid the flag out, it was clear that it needed to be secured from shifting or moving, yet this had to be accomplished in the most delicate manner.

ENTER MAGNETS. Have I mentioned how indispensable magnets are in a conservator’s toolbox? (If you are not using them now in your treatments, you must start!) 

Flag conservation of historic flags and banners by textile conservator
Another view of Oregon's tattered stripes

Art Conservator at work, Spicer Art Conservation, rare earth magnets

While the normal course of action here would call for double sided tape, we opted for a smarter approach. The outside edges of each table the flag rested on (three tables total pushed together) were fitted with a metal strip (see photo below, metal strip has holes and is beneath the backing fabric). We then prepared 4-ply mat board strips by placing small, rare-earth, magnets at even intervals. The magnets were then secured to the mat board by wrapping them in framers tape (this process is illustrated in the photo above).  

Art conservation using rare earth magnets
The entire perimeter of the metal-edged tables were then covered with the mat board/framers tape strips. By sandwiching the supporting fabrics between the metal strip on the table and the magnetic strips, we were able to create a fully stable edge that caused absolutely no stress on the object. Amazing, right?

Flag conservation of historic and antique flags, textiles, banners, american flags
Flag conservation, historic and antique flags and banners, restoration and repair, mounting
Treatment complete and ready to go to the museum!
Ultimately, the flag was encapsulated using a custom-dyed nylon net. Utilizing this treatment enabled the piece to be conserved as the historical society intended it to be seen: allowing the original flag to be shown in its current state. The flag is now featured in a Civil War exhibit at the Columbia County Historical Society.

The use of magnets showed itself as invaluable in this step of the treatment as well. By placing the netting over the flag and then securing it in place with the magnetic “tape system”, we guaranteed the layers to be free from movement or shifting.  The net never had to be pinned to the already incredibly fragile fabric. Imagine the converse to this – hundreds of pinholes from the straight pins, which would have had to be used to secure the net to the flag! (Have we sold you on magnets yet?)

The use of magnets for an encapsulating treatment are an absolute necessity and we at Spicer Art Conservation, LLC will never do it any other way. Magnets are presenting their usefulness to us in a variety of ingenious ways, look for more examples in upcoming blog entries. In the meantime, check out our website –www.spicerart.com - to see how we used magnets to re-tuft a Hunzinger chair. 

rare earth magnets used in tufting of antique chair, historic furniture, museum collection, reupholstery, reproduction fabrics

Magnets and upholstery? You betcha!

for more information about the Oregon's flag, Visit the Columbia County Historical Society’s website at: www.cchsny.org and select "collections" from the left menu.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Look for Gwen's book, "Magnetic Mounting for Art Conservators and Museums",  available in 2018.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Versatile Mannequin Design for textile display

It is always a struggle.  Whether you are a conservator, costume professional, or a museum curator, displaying garments on a suitable display-form leaves you dissatisfied with the results and exhausted from the struggle.  History has produced a variety of mannequins and display-forms: from ready-made, to custom-built, dress forms in passive and molded buckram, as well as carved mannequins, just to name a few.  Yet, each was specifically designed for a specific situation, leaving the mannequin "pigeon-holed" in its purpose.  But not any more.  The mannequin, as we know it, has stepped out of the ho-hum and has evolved into the hot-diggity!

What if a mannequin could be as versatile as the entire collection it needs to display? What if a single mannequin could be used to display a mid-century taffeta gown, or just as easily, an 18th century military uniform?

These questions, along with a set of specific demands, led to the development of just such a mannequin.  During a project to create 33 mannequins for the National Air and Space Museum's exhibit, "America by Air", Spicer Art Conservation (along with the museum staff and SmallCorp) were able to come up with an easily dressed form for both male and female garments, displayed at various heights and positions.  This reliable and versatile form is easy to produce and easy to use.  It's novelty is the internal armature, known as "side-ways ladders"(see illustrations below: left: original drawing of mannequin; right: side-ways ladder embedded in foam)

custom-made mannequin for museum display, art conservator, conservation of textilescustom made mannequins for museum display of historic textiles and costumes, art conservation

Display of costumes for Air and Space Museum. Mannequins are custom made by art conservator
A display from NASM's 
Often it seems that conservators take on all steps of mannequin production.  But by allowing the metal armatures to be made by a metal smith, the conservator can focus on the careful shaping of the ethafoam forms.  The other benefit is "straightness on the base".  How many times has a conservator spent hours carving a form, only to have it inserted on an angle onto the metal display post?  (The answer: Too many times!).  With this design, the placement of the armatures ensures straightness on the base.  An added bonus is that the procedure is quite quick. Dressing a mannequin is made simple as all the parts disassemble.  What is more, is that the design is not limited to a specific fashion period, gender, or ethnic group.

Art conservator carving ethaforam to create a custom support mannequin for display of historic textiles and costumes
Above: Carving the foam 

So we have a mannequin that is easy to dress, looks great, is adaptable to any display situation, and can be used multiple times with flexible and versatile components that are able to be mixed and matched.  Did I mention that the upper portion could be used for both the display AND the storage of the artifact? (see 4/25/12 blog entry: "Conservation is More Than Treatment")

custom made mannequin designed by art conservator for display of Native American historic clothingmuseum mannequin for custom made display of historic Native American textiles by art conservatorCustom made mannequin by art conservator for the display of Native American garments  
(series of three photos above:  a gradual progression of building a mannequin for Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society's exhibit, "Trial of Red Jacket".)                                                        

As a conservator, I love a challenge.  And I especially love when an item in our daily repertoire can be reinvented to become something extraordinary.  My hope is that museums (both large and small), institutions, and those in private practice can use this design in a successful way to display a wide variety of costume garments easily over the course of many exhibits.

This blog post by Barbara Owens summarizes a paper and talk given by Gwen Spicer, "A Versatile Mannequin" presented at American Institute for Conservation's 34th Annual Meeting. To download a copy of the paper, just click on the link.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.