Flag conservation

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

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Trapunto banners are Memorial textiles

by Gwen Spicer and Barbara Owens

As we approach Memorial Day and we remember the men and women who have died while serving in our military, I wanted to talk about artifacts that we have treated that best demonstrate how our soldiers have been remembered from the Revolutionary War until recent conflicts, such as WWII , Korea, or Vietnam. This was a harder task than I had thought it would be. Veterans, families of soldiers killed in action, collectors, and museums all value items which commemorate specific conflicts or military events and we have treated a variety of items from flags to uniforms, hats, swords, and saddles of cavalry units, to name a few. But perhaps the most interesting, are the Trapunto banners from the United States Navy's Great White Fleet's stop in Japan in late October of 1908.

Trapunto banner, WWI, Great White Fleet, Teddy Roosevelt, art conservation, repair of historic textiles, memorabilia, mold damage
A detail of a trapunto banner before treatment. Even though this banner had been
 exposed to moisture and suffered mold damage, what is not diminished is how 
intricate and beautiful the stitching is.

For all of those textile people out there, I need not tell you what trapunto means. But for those readers who are unfamiliar with this term, "Trapunto" is an italian word that refers to a method of stitching where the fabric is "stuffed" with a padded layer beneath and then embroidered with beautiful heavy couching stitches on the top to create an image of very high relief. The trapuntos from Japan come almost exclusively from a company in Yokohama called the George Washington Company. The company sold many silk items as this was a popular commodity that navy men sought while in Japan,  But, their specialty was beautiful banners made of silk in trapunto style with stunning colors of thread and a space to insert a photograph of the sailor. Many of these  featured the image of an eagle, or  flags, an anchor, the ships of the fleet, perhaps a dragon, and often were titled with something like: "In Memory of my Cruise Around the World" and some featured the phrase: "E. Pluribus Unum".

A beautiful and symbolically typical example of a Trapunto banner from Yokohama. The sailor's photo is inserted into the life ring at the center, below that the eagle attacks the dragon, this is probably to to depict the "Boxer Rebellion" of 1900.  Other flags run along the edge, these can differ from one trapunto to the next, and may be representative of countries which had imperial interests in this area of the world.

Here is the history lesson that goes with these trapunto banners: President Teddy Roosevelt has built a formative navy and wants to show it to the world. He sends his 16 warships out to circumnavigate the world from December 16, 1907 to February 22, 1909. The ships are quite a sight with each of their hulls being painted bright white, hence the term "Great White Fleet". (Side Note: True, this voyage was a peacetime mission and certainly no servicemen died in any battle, but I am writing this blog for Memorial Day to remember this important and fairly unknown part of history and the amazing textiles that came from it!)

Route of the Great White Fleet courtesy of Wikipedia and map author: "TastyCakes"

The above and below image are two banners of the same design. This seems to be the largest of the trapunto banners that was available for purchase. It contains a large amount of detail and information. Not only could the sailor have his photo inserted, it also came with photos of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Admirals Sperry and Evans. The above banner is in good condition but notice the loose threads of the outermost red stripes. The banner below was acquired by a museum and is in poor condition from lack of proper storage, but has not yet been able to undergo conservation treatment.
Trapunto banner in need of art conservation

The first of the above photos, as well as others from the Great White Fleet's journey, can be found at the Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command website. It is a great place to learn about The United States Navy and its history. The image below is also from their website and shows another beautiful example of this type of textile.

Each time a trapunto from this time period comes in to our studio, I am struck by how fantastic these textiles are, and I am amazed at how popular these must have been among the sailors and marines. Think about how few sailors and marines made this trip (14,000 of them according to the US Navy) and how many of these trapunto banners exist. These must have been valued by the sailors and it is clear that these were not seen as just a simple souvenir, but instead were kept as a memory and cherished. For their age, many of them are in good condition because they have been cared for.

To read more about the voyage of the Great White Fleet go here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_White_Fleet.

And if you still want more, the Navy Library page has a very detailed article about the voyage and you can find the link here: http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/gwf_cruise.htm

From all of us at Spicer Art Conservation, Happy Memorial Day!
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.


  1. I'm very glad to have run into this article. Our museum -- in Wilmette, Illinois -- has on loan a trapunto banner (as I've now learned to call it) from World War I, which adorned the wall of a local veteran of that war. It is remarkably well preserved, but does need some conservation work.

    1. Hello to you in Wilmette! Are you at the Historical Museum? Spicer Art Conservation treats textiles from across the United States and all over the world. We would be happy to discuss your banner. You can contact us at (518) 765-2142 or at gwen@spicerart.com. You can also visit or website, www.spicerart.com to see more about us and some of our previous conservation projects. And thank you for leaving a comment on our blog.