Mark Schneider with Phoenix Art Restoration works on the flag hand-sewn by the Bellevue Minute Women (Photo courtesy of Bob Shay).

Historic WWI flag sewn by Bellevue women conserved for future generations

A project like this doesn’t come along very often for art restoration and conservation specialists Petra Kreidler and Mark Schneider.

In their combined 60 years of experience, the pair had only worked on approximately 25 flags when Bellevue resident Bob Shay approached them to restore a hand-sewn silk American flag made by five members of the Bellevue Minute Women during World War I. As best as Shay and local historians can tell, the flag was made sometime during the war, which began 100 years ago next April.

“This flag is unique, not only in it’s age — I’ve never worked on anything this old — but most flags I’ve worked on have been made from synthetic materials or cotton, sometimes linen. Silk is pretty expensive and always has been. I’m not sure why they did it this way,” Schneider said.

Little is known about the flag or why it was made. A small handwritten note found with the flag when it was donated to the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on 148th Avenue Northeast in the 1970s only gives scant information. It reads: “Made by a group of WWI minute women of Bellevue — Bell Reid, Sarah E. Rogers, Lillian Anthony, Minnie Silliman and Adelaide Belote. Material for flag — $7.50.”

The Bellevue Minute Women were a local chapter of a national movement prevalent during the Great War, according to Shay. Founded in 1917, the group helped families of soldiers in need, soldiers leaving for the front and wounded men returning from Europe. After the war ended, they largely faded into obscurity.

The flag’s restoration is part of Shay’s work to restore the city’s memorial to three Bellevue boys who died in battle during WWI. The Minute Women planted three trees for the men and poured the cement block base of the monument in the 1920s.

While fundraising for the project in 2009, Navy veteran Shay stumbled upon the flag hanging in the VFW’s recreation room. Because of the generous donations the city and people of Bellevue gave towards the monument’s restoration, the VFW was able to allot $3,000 towards the preservation of the flag.

“It’s a piece of Bellevue’s history … Once these things are gone, there’s no getting them back,” Shay said.

Restoring a piece like this is a delicate process. When silk ages, it gets brittle and cracks, creating small holes in the fabric, Kreidler said.

“I would say it’s much more likely for silk to crumble into dust than a rag paper,” she added.

The material is also very difficult to clean and nearly impossible to restore to the original color — to do so would require taking the flag apart and dying each section. In most projects — such as a target kite marred with bullet holes, rips and burns that had been used by pilots to practice shooting down enemy planes that the company recently restored — the risk is unnecessarily great and even takes away from the history of the artifact.

“Often, when conserving items, we try to keep things as original as possible. The fading is even part of the piece’s story as well,” Kriedler said. “We see a lot of pieces come through our doors, period. Some are newer, most are old and they’ve all got a story of how they came to the United States, how they’ve been in the family and how they were damaged … Not all are historic, but they’re all somebody’s treasure.”

Most of the money spent on the flag will go towards a special UV acrylic frame that will protect the piece from light and heat for years to come. While the VFW will house the flag for now, Shay said he hopes that one day, Bellevue will have a historical museum or exhibit where it can be displayed for a greater audience.

“We’re framing this not just for Bob [Shay] or guys at VFW, but beyond that, to everybody else who will receive it and display it in the future … It’s my job to protect it from it’s future as best I can,” Schneider said.

The work on the flag was finished this week. It is expected to be re-mounted on the VFW’s walls on the centennial anniversary of the start of WWI in April 2017.

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