USDA research preserves historic flag

WYNDMOOR, Pa. – As the nation celebrates its 225th birthday, USDA Agricultural Research Service wool experts can take pride in knowing they helped the Smithsonian Institution gain additional insight into a national treasure, the flag that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner.

Flag has degraded.

The flag’s fiber and dyes have degraded over the years, despite careful treatment by various handlers. Constant exposure to light, temperature fluctuations and humidity have deteriorated the 150-pound wool flag, its cotton stars and linen backing.

Scientists William N. Marmer, Jeanette M. Cardamone and colleagues at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Wyndmoor, Pa., worked with the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project to assess the flag’s deterioration using high-tech equipment at the Wyndmoor lab.

They collaborated with the project’s chief conservator, Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Researchers helping.

The researchers, based in the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center’s Hides, Lipids and Wool Research Unit, offer unique expertise in this area. They are the only federal researchers working on the utilization of domestic wool.

The unit is responsible for developing and patenting new technology for bleaching and dyeing wool, as well as technology to monitor those processes.

Cardamone’s team examined fabric structure without touching the actual flag. They used Digital Image Analysis for Fabric Assessment to analyze these images and comparative images.

From the digital images, they developed a mathematical procedure to determine yarn spacing and thickness without damaging delicate areas of the actual flag.

Cardamone said their methods are designed to give characterizations of the flag’s fabric and are less tedious than traditional techniques.

Implications.

Scientists can now present findings based on their methods to the Smithsonian’s textile conservators, who may apply the technique to the Star-Spangled Banner when deciding what preservation methods to employ.

About the flag.

The 30- by 34-foot flag has been in the Smithsonian’s collection since 1907. The museum built a special conservation laboratory to accommodate the flag, which was moved there in 1999 as part of the three-year restoration project to better care for, exhibit and store it.

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