How to Care for Old Flags

Some foxing on the heading
Stains in U.S. Flag can be lightly brushed, but not washed
13 Star wool flag, c. 1860s


Flags manufactured before the age of synthetics were generally made whole or in part from wool, cotton and linen, all natural fibers.


Wool bunting had been used for flags for centuries and there is a reason no credible 18th century U.S. national flag has survived into the 19th century. Wool is very susceptible to decay and deterioration due to water, infestation, and careless preservation.

Wool is an animal based fiber. By definition, it is the fine, soft, curly hair containing keratin that forms the fleece of sheep or other domesticated animals such as goat and alpaca. The fleece fibers easily overlap and cling together to give the material a dense and soft felt-like feel and a surprising strength.


Cotton is a plant-based fiber while linen is classified as a vegetable-based fiber even though it is made from the plant known as flax.

Cotton and linen were sometimes used to make the heading (the end where the flag meets the pole) and the stars on the U.S. national flag before World War II. Cotton replaced wool as the main textile for U.S. national flags during World War II when wool became the primary textile for the manufacture of military uniforms.

In fact, this is the quickest way to determine when a 48 star U.S. national flag was produced. If it is wool it was produced from 1912 to about the 1940s; a cotton flag was produced from the 1940s until the 50 star national flag was introduced in 1960.


With mold and mildew stains take the following steps, according to the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute:

– remove the flag or textiles, in their original container, outside of the area
– carefully spread the flag on a clean, absorbent, dry surface,
– allow the flag or textile to dry,
– use a fan to circulate the air, but not focus the fan directly on the textile,
– once dried, carefully use a vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment or a hand brush to clean the surface of the flag to remove the mold or mildew once it is dry (caution: you may not be able to remove all of it or the stain),
– washing or dry cleaning the flag is not recommended since mold and mildew break the fibers and the water-based cleaning will destroy the textile entirely.


The ‘musty’ odor of an old textile is caused by a fungi or bacteria. Simply laying the textile in a warm, dry, airy environment will eventually eliminate the odor. Some chemical cleaners, advertised to help with the odor, will clean the fibers, but will harm the colors or finishing of the textile.

‘Foxing’ usually refers to the small dimple-like brown dots that are normally found in old books. This is true for textiles, too. Some fungi and bacteria produce these rust-colored stains as they grow. Bleaching is sometimes used to reduce the color of the spots, but it also weakens the fibers or paper where it is applied. There may be little you can do to remove the spot without further damaging the textile or book. It is best just to store the item in an acid free environment.


The following section is taken in its entirety from the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute information regarding the safe handling of antique textiles:

“People with asthma, chronic pulmonary problems or immune compromised conditions should consult their physicians before working with mildewed textiles. The microbes affecting textiles are not generally pathogenic, but the large quantity of spores can affect health. Gloves, goggles, and fit-tested filtered, rated facepieces should be worn while handling mildewed objects. Protective gear should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized after each use–or bagged and discarded. Clothing worn during the handling of mildewed textiles should be laundered with hot water, well rinsed, and, of course, thoroughly dried.”


Because wool, cotton and linen are all natural fibers, smaller insects like the casemaking clothes moth, the common clothes moth, the varied carpet beetle, the common carpet beetle, the hide beetle and the harder beetle all relate these fibers to food. They feed on the natural keratin characteristic of the wool fiber, for example, while the plant fibers of cotton and linen are edible, too.

To combat deterioration, particularly from insects, the key is to remove acid from its immediate environment, but also air from which insects thrive. According to the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute:

– wrap the flag entirely and within the folds in a neutral pH, unbuffered acid free tissue paper that is marketed as 18 lb weight paper.
– enclose the acid free wrapped flag in a plastic bag to keep out insects,
– place the flag in an acid free closed box or container.

But where to store your protected flag? In a humidity controlled area. Don’t store your protected flag in attics, basements or in closets and storage places that face to the outside wall. The changes in temperature affects the humidity levels. Stagnant air beginning at 80% relative humidity will adversely affect cotton and linen, above 92% will affect wool and silk.


Just as a car engine needs to be turned over frequently, a flag regardless of its size needs to be unfolded occasionally, too. If it is a large or oversized flag, unfold it on a warm, dry surface free from contact with dirt, grass, or water.

Examine the flag for areas of mold, mildew, stains or tears and care for it as above.

Refold the flag differently than you did previously so as not to crease or bend the fibers in exactly the same way each time.

Odd as it seems, it is quite proper to roll up or ball up a wool or cotton flag. Just pack it with acid free paper as above, but use a lighter 12 lb paper inside and all around the flag. This prevents creasing which can cause permanent damage. Then store in an acid free, air tight container.


Use of specialized materials such as acid free papers, boxes, containers, and even glass to reduce the harmful UV rays of the sun can dramatically increase the life of these special objects. It is our responsibility to do what we can to preserve, protect and defend these historic textiles for future generations. They tell our stories just as we tell our own.

For more information on preservation in general, visit the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute at:

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