Flag conservation

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How do you know? Dating a War of 1812 sash.

by Nicolette Cook, SAC Conservation Team

A red silk sash, presumably from the War of 1812, recently came through the studio to be treated for an upcoming museum exhibit. While working with this amazing artifact my interest was peaked. I have seen several sashes from the Civil War, but few that have survived from this early conflict. A good question to ask is: how can you tell that this particular sash is from the War of 1812? To recap history in the simplest of terms, the United States declared war on Great Britain over numerous violations involving trade with France, their impressment of American merchant sailors, as well as providing military support to the Native Americans fighting against American expansionism. When the war broke out, both sides received support from regimental and militia units formed in Canada. This is significant because the sashes extent from this period were worn by officers who participated in the Great Lakes and Western Territories campaign and are held by institutions around the Ontario, Canada and Niagara Falls/Buffalo, NY areas, including the Niagara Falls Historical Society and Museum and the Buffalo History Museum (BHM).

War of 1812 sash, dating of an artifact, collection care, Buffalo History Museum, art conservator, textile conservation
Silk sash worn by Lt. Col. Seymour Boughton during
the War of 1812, Buffalo History Museum.

According to BHM, the sash was worn by Lieutenant-Colonel Seymour Boughton. Fighting against the British, he commanded 129 men of the 12th Regiment Cavalry, 1st Brigade for Ontario County during the War of 1812.  Lt Col Boughton was from the town of Avon in Ontario County and he died December 30th, 1813 in the Battle of Buffalo, also known as the Battle of Black Rock.

This particular sash, though not ornate, does feature a very interesting weave structure known as "sprang."

Sprang weave detail from War of 1812 sash, Art conservator, historic textiles, museum collection, Buffalo History Museum
Detail of sprang weave from Boughton's sash.

This technique features warp strands (the longitudinal threads of a textile) fixed at both ends on a loom, which are then twisted or interlaced together. The weave is begun at one end of the warp, while the same pattern is produced simultaneously at the opposite end. The weave is then tightened and held in place with sticks or rods. In this way the work progresses until the weave meets itself in the middle of the resulting fabric. Another aspect of sprang is either a small number, or the complete absence, of weft strands (the transverse threads of a textile). Unlike most woven textiles, an artifact with this sprang weave structure is very elastic in nature allowing the fabric to stretch around unusual shapes such as hair buns, knees and elbows. Interestingly, the oldest extant example of sprang weaving can be dated back to 1400 BC with a hairnet from Borum Eshøj, Denmark. Other early examples are also found in South America dating to 900 AD.

Bronze Age hairnet done in sprang technique from Borum
Eshøj, Denmark, c.1400BC, National Museum, Copenhagen

To get back to the original question, what is the evidence that this sash is from the War of 1812 and not from the Civil War for example? It is not unusual to use the same style of garment for a number of years, thus it makes dating such items to a specifically narrow time period very difficult. Without the crucial information about the officer who originally wore the garment, there is not much to help determine the exact era of origin. Really the only way to know with any certainty is to compare this sash with others known to be from the same time period. First, in order to rule out that we do not have a Civil War sash, we have to examine the evidence. Luckily we have a significant amount of photographic documentation of Civil War military dress. It was in 1839 when Louis Jaques Mandé Daguerre refined his photographic process and developed the first daguerreotype. It involved exposing a copper plate coated with a thin layer of light sensitive silver. After exposure for several minutes the image was fixed in a sodium solution bath. The process came to America soon after it’s invention and a vast number of images were created chronicling everyday people as well as soldiers who participated in the Civil War. Below, one such image of Captain James Thomas Bussy shows the style of sash he wore as part of his Civil War uniform.

Daguerrotype of Captain James Thomas Bussey, who led Co. H. 2nd Maryland Infantry,
wearing a waist sash.  Dave Mark Collection.

From what I've seen of Civil War era sashes in text, photos and from previous projects I've worked on, there is one distinct difference apparent right away - the tassel. Of the few examples that I've seen of War of 1812 sashes, the warp threads are woven closely together to tie off the sprang weave structure, then are twisted together to form the fringe. Consequently the body of the garment and the fringe are one continuous piece. Unlike Lt. Col. Boughton's sash, the warp threads of Civil War era sashes do not form the tassel.  Here the structure of the tassel consists of an acorn mould, a collar, and a fringe skirt. Capt. Bussey’s tassel, compared to Lt. Col. Boughton’s, exhibits a more complicated structure that is common to all Civil War sashes. This can be seen in several surviving images that are too numerous to reproduce here. Seen in the example below, the Civil War tassel is separate structure to which the sash is attached. If that is not convincing, take a look at the fading present on the Major Teed's sash compared to that of the unknown officer, or Lt. Col. Boughton's above. As a sash is worn the tassel receives the most wear and the most exposure to light. The 1812 tassels are not faded while that of the Civil War is significantly so.

Then we must look at the weave structure. As already stated, the sash I treated from BHM, similar to the sash from Niagara Falls History Museum, features a sprang weave structure. While sashes from the Civil War era were constructed using a plain weave technique, which involves each warp or weft passing over one thread then under the next. This difference in weave structure is common, and thus indicative that in fact the BHM sash can be dated to military dress during the War of 1812.

Detail of tassel and weave structure from a War of 1812 sash, officer unknown, Niagara Falls History Museum

Detail of tassel and weave structure of a sash worn by Major William Teed,
8th Missouri Cavalry, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield; WICR 30230  
The evidence is few due to the simplicity of the garments, but drastic enough to be convincing.  The difference in weave structure and tassel construction are important pieces of information that distinguish the sashes and indicate that they were worn during different conflicts. I believe that the documentation present in the daguerreotypes taken during the Civil War is probably the best evidence we have to prove that the sash from BHM and others like it are from the War of 1812. The BHM artifact does not resemble these documented sashes in the slightest, and thus cannot be mistaken for a Civil War item. Take these images into consideration, along with the physical characteristics and corresponding information/ evidence of who wore the particular garments, and no doubt is left in my mind that we can confidently date Lt. Col. Boughton’s sash to the War of 1812.
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 have a red, wool sash very similar to the one in your photo referencing the war of 1812. I've been trying to find out information about it and a possible dating frame. Any chance I can send you some photos of it to see what you think? Thanks. My email is shyhunters@gmail.com.

    1. Dear Jamie, Thank you for commenting on the blog post. Yes, sending me images is a good first step. Talk with you soon.

  2. Hi Gwen, I have an old old photo of my Great Great Great Grandpa, he is wearing a almost civilian velvet suit. The stumper is that he is wearing a sash and on the left lower side of his outfit there is a ribbon and a sash. The ribbon is of the cloth roset type and beside it a small long thick ribbon. This ribbon has the words"HANCOCK POST #080 on it. As well it has a star, like the Eastern Star, but this i guess could also be just a sash buckel. Can you help me,, I can send you an image if that is better for you. I have run up against the wall with this. Truly, Lou

    1. Hello Lou, what an interesting mystery you have. Perhaps your grandfather was a member of that post - but what kind of post was it? Odd fellows? Veterans of a particular conflict?. I would start with a local historian, or possibly an antiques dealer who specializes in the particular time period when your ggg-grandpa had his photo taken. Historians and antique dealers are quite good at recognizing features from particular eras. Good luck!