Conservation Treatment of the Kanehsatake Flag

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By: Jan Vuori
Publication Date: 1/1/2001 12:00:00 PM

Flags are important symbols of cultural identity. This one, from the Tsi Niionkwarihò:ten Cultural Centre Ne Kanehsatake in Kanehsatake, Quebec, possesses a special significance because it is unique. Made by three Kanien'kehá:ka women from Kanehsatake (Eleanor Awenhó:kon Simon Martin, Mary Kakwirá:'es, and Rebecca Margery Martin) more than 90 years ago, it was raised regularly for ceremonies and holidays. Over time, however, the condition of the flag deteriorated (from insect attack on the wool portions, as well as mechanical damage from use) to the point where it could no longer be handled without risk of further loss. To preserve what remained of this flag (Figure 1) and enable it to be displayed, it was sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute for treatment.

After careful consideration, it was decided that the flag should be cleaned, aligned, and mounted onto fabric that would indicate its original dimensions, with no attempt to re-create the lost appliquéd decorations. [Although approximately half the flag was missing, a small portion of hem remaining on the ‘fly' end clearly indicated its length, and the width could be deduced from the tripartite construction.] This treatment would not only physically stabilize the flag, but also make it look like a flag once more (Figure 2).

The initial stage in the treatment was cleaning. Mechanical surface cleaning was carried out through protective screening using a vacuum cleaner with reduced suction. Wet cleaning (i.e. delicate washing using conservation methods) was conducted only after testing all components for colourfastness. [Wet cleaning is desirable because it not only removes soils but also flushes out acidic degradation products and ‘plasticizes' the fibres so that the fabric can be straightened and the wrinkles reduced.] The flag was stitched between two layers of a sheer polyester fabric (Figure 3) to prevent any loss during the wet cleaning procedure. Because old textiles become weaker when wet, the flag was also placed on a rigid screen made from ABS piping and nylon screening (Figure 4). Canpac 645 (a neutral pH detergent) was then applied by sponging it through an additional layer of screening (Figure 5), followed by thorough rinsing.

After rinsing, the flag was transferred to a tabletop where it was aligned or ‘blocked out' using the water to ‘float' the fabric (Figure 6). Once the main outline and the larger fragments were aligned, the flag was blotted and quickly air-dried. Tangled loose threads were later coaxed into proper position using a lightly dampened brush (Figure 7).

The final stage of the treatment was mounting the flag onto fabric that would indicate itsoriginal dimensions. As each of the three bands of the flag was in a different condition, each required a different technique for attachment.

The cotton fabric making up the top band and the pole sleeve was too weak to withstand very much stitching. These areas were backed with silk crepeline (a fine, nearly transparent fabric) coated on both sides with a solution of Clariant T1460 (a thermoplastic adhesive) (Figure 8). The excess crepeline was trimmed away, and the cotton was then adhered to the backing fabric by heat setting. This method reinforced the cotton to the extent that a few small stitches could be taken around the edges using hairsilk (an extremely fine silk thread) (Figure 9a, b).

The middle band of fabric was a wool/cotton blend. Areas of loose threads in this band were also adhered to patches of silk crepeline and heat set to the backing fabric. This method of attachment was augmented with couching stitches in hairsilk. Sound areas of this band of fabric were attached to the backing fabric solely by stitching.

The bottom band of fabric was also a wool/cotton blend. In this band the fly end was so fragmented that it could not be stabilized with adhesive-coated crepeline because the adhesive would be too difficult to remove from the many areas where it would be exposed. Fortunately the fabric was strong enough to be stitched, so all of the bottom band was attached to the backing fabric in this manner. Fragments and weak areas were couched onto the backing fabric using hairsilk (Figures 10 and 11a, b).

Even after treatment the flag required a solid support in order to be displayed. This was made from plywood covered with Marvelseal (a nylon, aluminum, polyethylene laminate that prevents wood's acidic products from escaping), which was then padded with needle felted polyester batting and covered with prewashed cotton. The flag was attached to this mount primarily by stitching through the support fabrics, with some stitching through the flag itself around the appliquéd decorations and outer edges. The mounted flag was then installed in a Plexiglas case, made by a local plastics firm, to protect it from dust and accidental soiling.



stitching the flag

soaking the flag


blocking out


thermoplastic adhesive

pole sleeve

pole sleeve

stitching the bottom band

insect damaged area