Star-Spangled Banner "Too Fragile To Hang Again"

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Soon after the recent preservation efforts began, it became evident that the linen backing was soiled, worn and no longer providing the appropriate support.

"The stitches caused a lot of distortion in the fabric and left a pattern of stitching both from physically moving the yarns around and also from soiling," noted Thomassen-Krauss. "Those kinds of damages are cumulative over time. Everything that sits on the surface of the flag has the potential for cutting into the surface and abrading it. So the less material we put on the surface the better off the flag will be."

Once the flag was moved into the lab, the conservators slowly unrolled the banner while carefully clipping the approximately 1.7 million stitches that attached the linen to the flag. The conservators, wearing surgical scrubs and using special tools, worked either from the edge of the roller tube or accessed hard-to-reach areas from a 32-foot wide movable gantry, or platform, that is suspended four inches above the flag.

Once the colossal, year-long task of removing the stitching from the flag was completed, the team prepared the flag for the actual removal of the linen backing. The face of the flag was covered with "marquisette", a gauze-like open-weave polyester fabric that is non-abrasive and provides lightweight support. The flag was then rolled onto the cylinder again and unrolled with the linen side up. Then conservators carefully separated the linen from the flag exposing a side of the Star-Spangled Banner not seen by the public since 1873.

The Future of the Flag

Future plans for the flag include the addition of a temporary support which will sandwich the flag between two layers to support it during the cleaning phase of the project.

"What we are looking to do this time as opposed to the linen that was put on in 1914 is use a really lightweight fabric that's hopefully sheer enough to be able to see both sides of the flag," said Thomassen-Krauss. "This lightweight fabric will help to preserve the nature of the flag as a two-sided artifact. When it was on the very heavy linen it was hard to imagine that the flag was ever light enough to be flown. The old linen caused it not to drape and not move the way a flag would normally move. With the new fabric, we are looking to be able to recapture all of that essence of it being a flag."

All phases of the conservation are being carefully documented and photographed. Notes, along with before-and-after treatment photographs, will provide much information about the condition of the banner.

The conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner is scheduled to be completed by summer 2002.

The Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project, which includes the conservation treatment and state-of-the-art laboratory, research studies, educational outreach, a new display of the flag, and an endowment for its future care, is budgeted at U.S. $18 million. The project is being funded by Polo Ralph Lauren, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the United States Congress, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


Use this National Geographic News article in your classroom with the Xpeditions lesson plan: Why Do We Have an American Flag?

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