Flag conservation

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Conserving Patton's Third Army Flag

By Barbara Owens, SAC staff

Happy Flag Day 2017 and Happy 242nd Birthday to the US Army!  At Spicer Art Conservation we wanted to celebrate these two occasions by talking about the conservation of a historic American Army flag, General George Patton's Third Army Flag.

Conservation of historic flag, preservation, framing, mounting, repair, textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation.
Patton's Third Army flag when it arrived at Spicer Art Conservation.
(Image courtesy of the Gen. Geo. Patton Museum of Leadership, Ft. Knox, KY).

This flag is quite unique in that it is a textile constructed as a flag, yet it was never meant to fly.  Instead, Patton's Third Army Flag is a commemorative piece containing insignia from each of the 56 Units and Divisions of Patton's Third Army, as well as several lengths of laurel embellishments, all overlaid onto an organizational flag of the third army.  The flag was created specifically as a commemorative piece and was presented to General Patton by Major General Robert Littlejohn (who was chief quartermaster of European Theater of Operations).  The flag was given to Patton just weeks before his death on December 21, 1945.  The image below is perhaps the only photo of Patton with the flag.

Littlejohn presents the flag to Patton.  (Photo from U.S. Militaria Forum). 

The flag features some insignia or embellishments that are not part of the 3rd Army or its regiments.  Several lengths of laurel radiate from the center and create a separation between the Unit patches.  These laurel leaves are "European" in character, but quite fitting for inclusion in Patton's flag as he commanded throughout Europe and perhaps more importantly, laurel symbolizes victory.  An appropriate symbol to include in a presentation to a celebrated General who had famously been involved in victories of the WWII, from North Africa to Germany.

Creating a pressure mount for Patton's Third Army Flag:
A pressure mount is a type of framed mount for the display of a textile or paper artifact to create overall pressure to support the artifact. For textiles in particular, a pressure mount enables the artifact to be placed on a mount but with few or no stitches placed in the artifact to secure it to the mount.  The mount begins with a support panel composed of a rigid archival material, such as a honeycomb aluminum panel. The support panel is then covered with soft base layers created from needle-punched polyester batting. The batting serves as a soft surface for the artifact to rest on. The artifact is then covered with UV filtering plexiglas and it is secured within an aluminum powder coated frame; the edges of the frame are sealed to prevent dust, debris and airborne pollutants from entering the frame.

Patton's Third Army flag had been previously framed and was stitched to a heavy piece of black polyester fabric. The previously used frame was not a sealed pressure mount and therefore dust and airborne particulate entered the back of the frame to settle on the mounting fabric (see image below).

Old flag mount, conservation, pressure mount benefits, textile conservator, flag conservation, preservation, repair
The previously used frame had allowed dust and airborne particulate to enter the back of the frame. Above, the reverse side of the mounting fabric shows the layer of dust.  Above, you can also see the extensive stitching in yellow thread used to attach the flag and fringe to its display fabric.

This flag is not flat:
A flag like this is unique in that the embroidery, insignia, and fringe create a 3-dimensional surface.  Additionally, the stitching of the various elements onto silk creates puckering between the patches and laurel.

Flag conservation, preservation, repair, mounting, framing, Patton Museum, textile conservator and flag care and preservation expert Gwen Spicer
This planar view of the flag's surface, shows the raised quality of the laurel embellishments.

The center area, where the large army "A" is located in an embroidered circle, is quite thick, with a round embroidered "A" being featured on both the obverse and reverse of the flag.  In fact, the large circle with the Third Army emblem is the only embroidery featured on the reverse side of the flag.

Paying attention to the raised embroidered areas of the flag is important for a number of reasons.  First, cleaning a surface that has texture and depth requires more attention to detail.  Second, when mounting the flag for display, if the raised areas are not supported, the weight of those areas can sag or shift as gravity takes its toll.

Building the Mount
Creating a pressure mount for a textile like Patton's Third Army Flag requires that the raised elements be supported consistently and overall with a padded surface as the base for the mount. If it had instead been placed on a hard, flat, base surface and Plexiglas was simply played over the top, it would result in the raised areas being crushed.  For a textile like this, the padding that covers the surface of the mount cannot consist of just one solid piece, instead the padding must be muli-layered, having areas cut-out of the padding to allow for the embellishments to rest into.

Textile pressure mounts for historic flags and banners are a specialty of conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, preservation, repair, conservation of antique, vintage and collectable flags.
While the pressure mount is being constructed, various layers of batting are
compiled to line up with the embellishments on the surface of the flag.  

The construction and building of the pressure mount is careful work.  The layers must align properly, and they must support, but create no additional bulk.

Textile conservation, preservation and repair of historic flags and banners. Pressure mount creation for textile.
The batting layers with the visible "wells" to accommodate the thicker portions of the flag.

Patton's commemorative patch flag features some interesting construction techniques.  The fringe is affixed to the outside of the flag, this indicates that the flag was a standard issue Third Army Flag.  The unit sleeve patches were affixed with care and thought; the red patches were stitched in a blanket stitch with red thread, the blue patches with blue thread, etc. (close-up image below).

Historic flag preservation, conservation, repair, framing and mounting, textile conservator, Spicer Art Conservation, George Patton Museum of Leadership
Close-up of some of the sleeve patches and the individualized
color stitching used to best match the patch.

Above, the close-up image reveals the close proximity placement of the sleeve patches, as well as the decorative laurel. The attachment shows the puckering or "undulation" of the silk as the heavy pieces are are stitched to silk - a slippery and unforgiving fabric!

As the pressure mount comes together, each component must work in synchronicity.  The layering of the batting must sit properly beneath the patches and embellishments. The Plexiglas must create the right amount of support and proper pressure, but not too much pressure as to be damaging.  The layers of the frame; the base support layer, the artifact, the Plexiglas, the frame itself, all must work together and house the textile in a way that will create the best possible mount for as long as the flag is framed within it.

Each year Spicer Art Conservation assists organizations and individual collectors with their flag conservation and mounting projects.  Our expertise in the preservation of these historic artifacts has given us the opportunity to work on some of the most unique and interesting pieces of history. We are pleased to be a recognized expert in flag preservation and wish all flag enthusiasts a very happy Flag Day!  We are additionally pleased to serve the US Army in the conservation of their collection of artifacts and wish the US Army a very happy birthday!
Gwen Spicer is an art conservator in private practice. Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, and is a recognized expert in the care and conservation of historic flags and banners. Spicer Art Conservation additionally specializes in object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  To contact Gwen, please visit her website or send an email.

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