Flag conservation

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

Monday, May 26, 2014

A high school sweater goes to war.

by Barbara Owens, SAC staff

Recently SAC was asked to treat a high school sweater. While that may not seem terribly remarkable or interesting, this was no ordinary sweater. As with most artifacts that seem ordinary, it is the story that accompanies the artifact that makes it unique, special or irreplaceable.

This particular sweater had been on display for roughly 80 years, and in that time the once blue and gold sweater had faded significantly to a dull purple from light exposure, it had also been feasted on by insects. Accompanying the sweater was a black and white photograph of a young soldier, who was the original owner of the sweater.

Art conservation, light damage to fabric textile,
The light damage to this sweater is quite severe, even the original blue which composed the body of the sweater is no longer visible at all.  You can see exactly how the arms were folded forward, and below the "N" is where the photograph of Walter Allison was affixed.

The sweater had been well worn and required some compensation where the holes had created weakness. It was also in need of proper support and protection from light.

The owner of the sweater, is the Newburgh Free Academy High School, located in Newburgh, New York where it will be on display in a new case at the entrance of the school. It had been on display for about 80 years outside the Athletic Department and brought out at every memorial service and the story is told to the students.

The sweater belongs in such an honorable place because the owner of the sweater, 20 year-old and recent high school graduate, Walter Allison packed his wool Newburgh Academy football sweater into his pack as he left for his tour as an enlisted soldier in the US Army, arriving in France on May 23, 1918. The United States had entered World War I in April 1917, and many young men were shipping off to Europe to serve their country. Many of these soldiers knew that they were going to be fighting in areas where harsh winter conditions would exist, and that the uniform they were provided with might not be enough to keep them warm. Hence, Allison brought along his wool varsity sweater in the hope that it would help insulate him against the freezing winter.

Walter Allison 1898 - 1918

Walter Allison was awarded the purple heart for his courageous service. His award was given posthumously following the battle of the Hindenburg Line, where he was killed in combat. The conditions of war are harsh. As you can see first hand when you visit the Purple Heart Hall of Honor, their display of war is encompassing of imagery that displays an up-close encounter with the realities of war.

Company roster from the 107th, Walter Allison is listed in the lower left as a private first class, killed in action, September 29th.  The losses the 107th endured that day were numerous, as can be seen from this page.  For more information about the 107th, please see the website: http://www.oryansroughnecks.org

When a soldier died, the items he left behind were often recycled back to soldiers on the battlefields who desperately needed them. One such thing, was Allison's football sweater. When it reached it's recipient, Chester Greatsinger, he recognized it immediately. By sheer coincidence, the sweater was passed on to Allison's schoolmate, and in that poignant moment, Greatsinger knew that Allison was dead and that the sweater, carried across the ocean from Newburgh, New York to the battlefields of France, was now his. Greatsinger completed his tour of duty and returned home with the sweater, where he presented it to Newburgh Academy Athletic Association in 1919.

Soon to be hanging at the Newburgh Free Academy, the sweater is conserved and will be able to tell it's story of bravery, the harsh realities of being a soldier, and how a sweater found it's way across the world and from one soldier to another and then back home again.

We at SAC hope you have a peaceful Memorial Day and that you keep in mind the men and women of the United States military and the sacrifices so many of them have made.

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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.