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Flag Preservation

Last modified: 2005-05-28 by phil nelson
Keywords: flag preservation |
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This from the Columbus Dispatch, on a Civil War battle flag being restored:

It costs up to $15,000 to restore or preserve each Civil War flag, she said. Some of the flags were laminated in the 1960s, but that began to decay. A newer, more expensive process is sewn into the fabric and is lighter and more protective than lamination.

A general question: why are old flags so costly to restore/preserve, and what does this new process of sewing into the fabric involve?
David Cohen, 1999 January 19

As I am a member of the Ohio Civil War Flags Preservation Committee and am somewhat conversant with flags preservation techniques from years of studying Civil War flags, I will try to answer for you.

First, any preservation technique you use has to be one that can be reversed later in case technology comes up with something better. In the case of the Ohio flags conserved by the chemical solution in the 60's, it was reversible, but exposure to light and ultra-violet radiation has plasticized the flags. Thus, though water soluble, it is harder now than had it been done 20 years ago.

That has to be soaked off in an ionized water solution - which also serves to clean the flags. Once they are properly dried the current stabilization techniques are to sew around the outer edges, as well as other stress areas, onto a material called Stabiltex - which takes the stress off the silk flag fabric and puts it on the backing. This is done to help the flag so it can go on display. Often, conservators will also fill in lost areas with the proper color of backing so as to make the flag look more "new".

This soaking, stabilizing and re-sewing process is very tedious and time consuming. With the best conservators charging $75 an hour for their work (and most are booked up well in advance for work) that adds up quite quickly. Toss in the proper supported frames for display and the dollars needed add up quickly.

Silk flags of the Union Army cost more for two reasons. One, they are silk - and that requires some different techniques than used on more durable materials as well as the material being more bio-degradable (these conservators are well versed in chemistry by the way as a part of their core training). The second thing is they are a lot larger than Confederate flags so there's more to conserve.

I have seen a pile of silk chips that looked like nothing be completely restored into a beautiful flag - so what these people can accomplish is tremendous - if you are willing to spend the money! It takes years to become a conservator and even more to establish a quality reputation - so they get the high bucks because they deserve it.
Gregg Biggs, 19 January 1999

The following was a response to a request regarding flag preservation and forwarded to the North American Vexillological Association. Below are recommendations for personal flag preservation.

Their are four basic things you can do to keep you flag looking good for many years to come:

1. Keep the dust off the flag. You say it's already in excellent shape, so you probably won't have to surface clean it. (But should that ever be necessary don't send it to the dry cleaners. It would actually be best to have a textile conservation expert clean it. Your local museum may be able to suggest someone to do the job, or if they are big enough they may be able to do it for you - for a fee or donation.) Vacuuming with a low-pressure vacuum unit and covering with acid-free paper is recommended.

2. Keep the light off of it. There are well known reports of Silk textiles found in tombs in China. These textiles look as good as the day they were made. This is because they hadn't seen the light of day for hundreds of years. Of course, hiding a flag and never looking at it isn't much fun, so either limit the time you display it or put it behind UV reducing glass. Don't let it get direct sunlight.

3. Keep it flat. The best storage facilities, such as those at the Museum of the Confederacy or the Capitol Preservation facility in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, store their treasures flat on acid free backed shelves. Acid free paper is available at better art supply stores. You don't need to buy a stainless shelf - a table will do as long as it's clean. Put the paper down, then the flag, then another layer of paper. Of course you may not have enough room for flat storage. The next best thing is to carefully roll the flag around a thick mailing tube, using the acid-free paper as a buffer. Then you can unroll it whenever you want to look at it. Store the flag in closet or other dark area when not being displayed.

4. Control the temperature and humidity. This is actually fairly easy. If you store the flag in a portion of the living area of your home you probably will be OK. Don't store it in the attic or basement (unless these are finished areas of your home that enjoy the same temperature and humidity that you do). Avoid extremes of humidity and temperature. Since most homes are heated in winter and Air Conditioned in summer this should not be a problem. Natural material flags like 55%-75% relative humidity. Anything higher will lead to mold, and very low humidity levels will lead to brittle fibers. The rule is that if you are comfortable so is your flag.

Richard R. Gideon, 02 December 1999