How do you preserve a 100-year-old piece of silk and woman suffrage history?

One of the largest artifacts in our display on the 1913 woman suffrage parade is also one of the most delicate. Educator MK Macko explains how we preserve it.

When I first saw the "Great Demand" banner in our collection, I got chills. I had just watched Iron Jawed Angels for the first time. Though the film's accuracy can be debated, it inspired me to research and better understand the incredible struggle women went through in order to get the vote in the U.S. Seeing this banner, the REAL BANNER, not a movie prop, stopped me in my tracks.


“Great Demand” banners like this one were used in demonstrations and rallies for woman’s suffrage by Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party.
"Great Demand" banners like this one were used in demonstrations and rallies for woman's suffrage by Alice Paul's National Woman's Party.

The team that developed the artifact wall case (which closes in December 2013) knew the banner would be an important part of the display. But they had to answer a difficult question: How do you display a 100-year-old silk banner for several months and not get it damaged? Answer: You don't.

Silk is a particularly delicate fabric and the impact of exposure to natural light and camera flashes can be damaging to the historic fabric—so the time the banner spends on display must be limited.

"Silk is a mono filament, so it's very thin," explained Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the textile conservator working on the banner. "When light interacts with the molecules, it starts cutting those molecules apart and it loses its integrity. Think of the silk fibers like pasta: it goes from being spaghetti to rice to dust. Silk goes from being a very flexible fabric to becoming quite brittle, almost like glass, which snaps and breaks with the exposure. So we're very sensitive to the light splitting the fibers because, after that starts, there is no way to reverse that process."


Banner silk
A close-up of silk fiber splitting. The top image is degraded, showing color change and lost fibers, while the bottom is healthier. These are fibers from First Lady Sarah Polk's silk dress from the 1840s. The bottom fibers are from an underlayer of the dress, exposed to less light.

Once fibers begin to split, it only gets worse. The flexible silk becomes brittle and begins to snap, causing permanent and irreversible damage. "We can see this in our clothes every day," said Thomassen-Krauss. "After a while, that sweater elbow doesn't bend and stretch anymore, it just tears. Silk is aligned because of the really long molecules that make up the fibers, but after the light exposure, it will exceed the yield point (where the fabric can accommodate the stress) and it will break."

So what is a museum to do? With the display case open From February through December 2013, we need to replace the original banner with a reproduction so that the original avoids the harmful effects of long-term exposure. Luckily for us, members of the Annapolis Quilt Guild do quilting demos at the museum on Tuesdays. This talented group of women have already helped us out before, for example with the quilt on display in Within These Walls.

I found the Annapolis Quilt Guild's process of creating the reproduction fascinating. First, they looked over the banner to assess its construction, size, color, basically everything, to ensure that they can satisfactorily complete the project to a high level of accuracy. The construction of the banner appeared to be fairly simple. Women in 1913 had sewing machines and often banners like this one were massed produced. The lettering is made from a stencil, cut out and first basted onto the yellow fabric and then followed up on the sewing machine with a zig zag stitch. The off-white border was sewn on with just a straight stitch.


A member of the Annapolis Quilt Guild working on the reproduction banner. The original likely would have been produced using a sewing machine, too.
A member of the Annapolis Quilt Guild working on the reproduction banner. The original likely would have been produced using a sewing machine, too.

Everything seemed rather straightforward until we looked closely at the lettering and realized there were at least two to three different types of lettering on the banner—and those needed to be accurate. We solved that problem by carefully taking a photo of the banner. Our production shop then printed out the image twice, both in the banner’s appropriate dimensions. We used one printout to cut out the letters for a stencil and the other to have an accurate reference to place the lettering in exactly the correct spots.


Stencils were carefully made and used to ensure accuracy for the banner's letters
Stencils were carefully made and used to ensure accuracy for the banner's letters

The reproduction banner differs from the original in one main way—its material. While we're committed to accuracy, we made the decision to opt for durable cotton instead of silk to avoid the challenges inherent in the more delicate fabric.

The finished product is a banner that looks nearly identical to the original and gets the same message across, but will allow us to preserve the real banner for generations to come. Because of this reproduction, I know that my children will one day be able to see the REAL THING.


The reproduction banner, while in progress. Visit the museum to see the finished product! A label in the display case identifies the banner as a reproduction used for conservation reasons.
The reproduction banner, while in progress. Visit the museum to see the finished product! A label in the display case identifies the banner as a reproduction used for conservation reasons.

MK Macko is the Daily Programs Floor Manager and a graduate student at The George Washington University Museum Studies program. The banner was a donation from Martin Gilmer Louthan in honor of his mother, Marie Gilmer Louthan, who participated in woman suffrage actions.

Posted at 9:00 am EDT in Now on View,Women's History