Saturday, August 17, 2013

'Unsung heroes' painstakingly ensure uniforms live to tell their compelling stories

Uniform of Sgt. Alfred May before conservation (NC Museum of History)

The work is tedious and tough on the back. An individual item can take up to 200 hours to complete. But the efforts pay off, especially when a uniform can be put back in condition that, when put on display, will help tell the personal stories and cost of the Civil War. Textile conservator Paige Myers of the North Carolina Museum of History will explain her craft in a live streaming webcast on Sept. 10. Myers recently spoke with the Picket about her work.

Q. What do you do?

A. The conservator physically works with an object to arrest the deterioration and do hands-on cleaning and stabilization of the object. We don’t add anything new and don’t make it look grand new or add new parts. We add support, but we do not interfere if something is missing. Science and chemistry are involved.

The May coat after conservation. (NC Museum of History)
Q. The museum has about 100 uniforms. Can you tell us a little about them?

A. The majority came in in between 1903, when the museum was founded by Col. Fred Olds, and 1920. Most are frock coats, because those are what lasted. The majority are those belonging to prominent men, upper-grade officers. We have very few from the average soldier. We have Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew’s frock coat and sash. As you work with them, you get to know them (the wearer) by name. Col. Charles Fisher died in 1861. His coat has unusual buttons. We have a few shell jackets.

Q. Tell us about the uniforms’ condition.

Alfred May
A. Many are too fragile to put out. Col. Fred loved to put them on display. We try to rotate our textiles after six months to a year. And with some, a lot of the dyes were not color-fast: they faded pretty early. The wool uniforms are pretty stable. Sometimes the interiors can be very fragile. One was stored in tobacco leaves and did not do well. It is very rare, belonging to to Sgt. Alfred May, Company F, 61st NC Regiment.  We now have it restored after more than two years’ work.  We sent it to a conservation team in New York. They had to sew in support for whatever little bits of wool were left.

Q. Can you give us examples of good and improper storage?

A. Bad is putting a trunk in the attic. It is hot up there. The combination of the heat and the acid from the wood, the tannins, over time affects cotton and linens more than it does wool. It can affect dyes and actually stain things. People did not have closets like we do today and hangars did not come until the 20th century. A lot of these uniforms were so loved in their families that they were really taken care of. Pettigrew was wealthy and his had a yellow lining. Sometimes a trunk protected them but, today, the best place is in an acid-free box and acid-free tissue. That will keep pests away. The main thing with the wool uniforms is carpet beetles, silverfish and moths because they will eat holes in the uniforms. Mothballs do no good.

Q. What about the museum’s large flag collection?

A. Most are made of wool bunting. The majority are battle flags and, generally, they are in fairly good condition. A lot of times they are in poor condition from the battle. The majority have soot, possibly specks of shrapnel. Some of have been "souvenired" -- parts cut away by whoever captured it. We have some silk flags. They have not been as conserved as much as other battle flags. We have groups pay for some of these flags’ conservation. Some are made from women’s clothing – one from a dark blue shawl.

Q. What are some of your techniques?

A.  When we put a support on a wool patch we have to make sure everything we do is reversible. The technology is evolving and we are learning new techniques to conserve and stabilize things. Sometimes the stitching where we think it is helping it is not helping. We used to use just cotton threads. We now have very fine polyester threads that are thinner and just as strong as cotton. It makes the repair that we have done less visible. We discuss things with curators because we want to know the history of the garment to know if it is a bullet hole or original damage.

Q. How about items worn or repaired after the Civil War?

Gen. Leventhorpe
A. We get a lot of dresses that have been worn into the early 20th century. If (an earlier repair) is damaging to an object, modern stitching with sewing machine, you might take those out. The Brig. Gen. Collett Leventhorpe coat now on display – there was some debate when we looked at it. There is some stitching done by Leventhorpe after the war. It was damaging the inside of the coat. We did the repair and kept the original threads. Conservation is much like putting a puzzle together.

Q. Can you tell us about display and storage?

A. The idea is to keep everything flat. We usually have them in hanging storage with padded hangars. If they are too fragile, they are boxed. Our flags are usually rolled if not in conservation. The flat-stored objects are in baker’s-type trays. Humidity is 55%.

Q. How has the approach to conservation evolved?

A. Museum collecting in the 1960s and 1970s was not considered the science that is now. Things might have been repaired to a heavier degree than we would now. Things might have been machine-stitched and a modern patch may have been used. Anything that I do is hand sewing.

Q. Can you tell us about how uniforms were made?

A. A lot were made by tailors or by women. Certain women would make a sleeve, one would make a front part of it and they would put it together. A good tailor could make a frock coat in 16 hours and there were lots linings and pockets. These were meant to last, and soldiers would not have had more than one or two coats. It was what everybody wore -- it was the style and fashion. You can see the wear of button holes, and some are not as a worn as others. They may not have buttoned all of them, so they could have ventilation go through.

Q. Do you have any emotional reactions to the items?

A. Sometimes there can be. When you see bullet holes and the possibility they died, it can leave you with sad thoughts. With one soldier, Cox, his vest and coat were shot all to pieces and the arm of the coat was cut open by surgeon scissors to get it off of him. He was shot 11 times during the war and survived. The coat never can go on a mannequin again. The entire left sleeve is cut open.

Paige Myers works on an 1860s Quaker frock coat
Q. Were men really smaller then?

A. The cut of the uniform can be deceptive. People were skinnier in some regards. Most of these guys have a 36-inch chest. If you are between 16 and 25 there are still a lot of skinny guys now who have a 36-inch. You don’t know exactly how they wore the uniform. That is where photography and knowing a little bit about that person comes in. The majority of these uniforms are pretty consistent and most are double-breasted. Pants, many were 28-30 inches, some 34s inseams for pants, Guys wore them higher, above their belly button. Most jackets around 38. They would be your young skinny 20-something today.

Q. OK, this work can be pretty tedious, right?

A. You really have to have a level of concentration to do this and you want to get your stitches precise to not damage something further. I use a magnifying glass and do the work in stages. It is hard on your back. You don’t want to move the object -- you have to move yourself. Sometimes you have to walk away. My lab is pretty bright, but it is controlled with UV filtering.

Q. What about the colors?

A. I try to match colors, swatches. When I dye a patch, I don’t go back to the original color of the uniform. I match the aging. Sometimes, I have a gray coat or uniform with a greenish cast and my support fabric will be green. Green grays can be tricky. Even a brown is not a brown -- often it is darker. Not every (Confederate) soldier wore butternut or brown.

Q. How do you see your role at the museum?

A. Conservators and curators don’t always agree. The curator’s job is to get it out to the public; the conservator says sometimes you cannot put it display. We have to compromise. You have to be careful how long you put them out and it can take up to a year to conserve one of these uniforms or flags. We are sort of the unsung heroes. I always think I could do more for an item, but we were taught less is more. Sometimes, it is what you don’t do to an artifact, as opposed to what you do, that will help preserve it.

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