A year ago this month, textile conservator Terri Schindel led a group of local volunteers in a “living exhibit,” the conservation of the 38-star flag that was the last to fly over Fort Sisseton in northern South Dakota. The flag was rediscovered during a conservation workshop that I attended at the fort in 2012, and I was surprised and delighted to be asked by Terri to help with the project. I told her that I wasn’t an expert with needle and thread, but would be happy to help in any way that I could.
It turned out that I would have needed a lot of practice to learn the required stitches to work on the flag, and the team had only 30 days to complete the project. Thankfully, many of the other volunteers were gifted needleworkers. I thought that I could help the most by doing the documentation, writing down the decisions made and steps taken to conserve the flag and taking pictures of the conservation in progress. I had never done anything like this before and there was no template to follow. I decided to document the process in much the same way as I journal every day. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to describe the work being done. I learned about the parts of the flag such as the canton, the fly end, and the pole end. I also learned sewing and fabric terms like applique and back stitch, warp, and weft, and I learned conservation terms like humidification, and the difference between conservation and restoration. Of course, as a writer I love to learn new words so the task fit right in with my strengths and interests.
You may wonder what a “living exhibit” is. The work on the flag took place on site at Fort Sisseton, and people visiting the fort could watch the conservation in progress. Some of the volunteers were designated as “interpreters” to explain the conservation process and tell about the history of the flag to the people who stopped by to look at the flag. Many of the visitors were surprised at how large the flag is, about nine by sixteen feet. Three feet of the fly end were removed at some point in its history, probably because it had gotten tattered in the wind when it flew above the fort over 100 years ago.
The best part of the project for me was learning the story of the flag. The most common question we had from visitors was whether we were going to restore the flag. I think our human nature is to want to fix things that are damaged, to make them perfect again, like new. That is what we would do if we restored the flag. Conservation means that we clean and stabilize the flag to keep more damage from happening to it, but not “fix” or repair it. The first rule of conservation is to do no damage, and the second rule is to do nothing that can’t be undone.
I began to realize how much of the flag’s story was contained in the things that made it imperfect. The tattered fly end meant that the flag had been flown. The repairs to it and the types of stitches used told other stories about the life of the flag. A large piece of the canton had been patched and we tried to figure out why and how it had been replaced. Some of the questions we had will probably never be answered — they will remain mysteries.
Last week, two other volunteers and I were asked to speak at the flag dedication ceremony about our experiences conserving the flag. The event took place during this year’s annual Fort Sisseton Historical Festival. We tried to decide what to speak about as we prepared before the ceremony, and realized that the story of the flag is as big, or bigger than the flag itself. You can read more about its history here, in the South Dakota Conservation Digest January/February 2014 issue.
Happy Flag Day!