Period Dating Artifacts
A goal of many who collect is to obtain artifacts that were actually worn or used by servicemen during the war. The best source for these items are obtained directly from the serviceman or servicewoman themselves, or their immediate families. Often these items find themselves in the hand of dealers who buy these items from the family or acquire them when these artifacts when they are auctioned off. These are frequently advertised as “estate” pieces. Some servicemen collected patches from friends and relatives, others accumulated patches as a hobby and may not have been veterans themselves. So the term “estate” is a general term which means belonging as property of an individual, family or organization. Some dealers offer documentation. This could be a photograph of the veteran, military records or identification papers. While that seems comforting to a buyer it is not always proof positive. Then there are the stories around artifacts, gun show dealers are famous for that, I’ve head many over the past 50 odd years. Some are very convincing yet not proof positive.
Some collectors use portable fluorescent “black lights” that illuminate subjects in ultraviolet light (UV) and if an item should glow under that light it would indicate that synthetic materials were used in manufacture. Patch collectors favor this as a test. The fact is it is not so much the material that glows but the colorant or dye used that has optical brighteners that has fluorescence under UV light, or absorbing shorter wavelengths and emitting light of longer ones that causes a patch to glow. While examining using UV light is useful to some it is not proof positive to date items. Some believe that natural materials were used in early artifacts, like patches, and those would be materials made into fabrics from cotton, silk and wool. Modern fabrics made of rayon (1912 Germany), nylon (DuPont 1935) and polyester (1941 England, DuPont 1950) for example were developed and adopted after World War I, but were readily available before and during World War II with the exception of polyester and used thereafter. Silk was imported from Asia and was expensive and in short supply during World War II so rayon and nylon were substituted. Most if not all patches from World War II that were manufactured in the millions on large Swiss loom machines had rayon top threads and either nylon or cotton bottom or bobbin threads. For smaller quantities or for hand embroidered patches made overseas (so called theater made) silk, cotton and wool were still available and used by small shops and tailors. Some people have used burn tests to determine the materials used in manufacture.. A burn test may be useful in helping to date something made before World War II but offers little help in dating items made during and after so again it doesn’t offer proof positive and may be a waste of time.
Techniques in manufacturing patches or embroideries fall into various types of machines used. Loom embroidered emblems and patches started before World War I in the United States but was popular in Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Germany and France. A loom is a textile machine and were referred to as “Swiss embroidery” or “Schfili embroidery”, both refer to a very large machine capable of handling fabrics in 10 or 15 meter (or yard) widths and were popularly used to make lace for garments. Most of the chevrons used by the Army during World War I were produced on similar machines and most Army Quartermaster orders during World War II for shoulder sleeve insignia or shoulder patches were made on Swiss and German machines in the millions. These machines used rayon for top threads, cotton or nylon for bobbin threads and were sewn to fabrics made of cotton (twills) and wool (melton). Often the fabric was backed or stabilized with a white cotton material like gauze or “cheesecloth” a mesh like material. Some firms used a clear lacquer coating on the back to stiffen the material. Patches made before World War II in the 1930s often used a black fabric, more like a muslim or white cheesecloth.
Shoulder patches also known as division signs became popular in about 1918 in France with the AEF. The British used patches of material in different shapes to identify division and corps formations called signs. It took the American doughboy to devise more ornate and colorful designs. There are many interesting stories or histories behind the selection and use of individual divisional designs. The main source of these patches were the division supply where doughboys made them from cutting and sewing different cut out fabrics. Often the manufacture was contracted to local tailor shops and small manufacturers in France primarily, later during the occupation in Germany. World War I patches vary in their design since they were all hand made and often sewn together by machine or by hand.
Patches made from several layers of cut fabric are termed applique. While the basic design was cut into shapes often embroidered edges or details were added either by hand or using a zig-zag or “swing needle” sewing machine. The Singer model 107W102 of 1928 vintage was typical of that machine’s design, it was also called a monograming machine where letters or designs were stitched from stencils or templates and stamped or drawn on the fabric or garment. This technique can be seen as skilled artisans “painted” fabrics with stitches in Asia, as in Vietnam. This method was used when small quantities were ordered and it wasn’t cost effective to do loom work that required a “punching” or control tape called a Jacquard.
Hand embroidered patches are sometimes embellished with gold and/or silver tinsel or braid, and colored yarns are added to the design. Collectors refer to these pieces as “bullion”. This type of embroidery dates back to Civil War times and many are produced today overseas in Asia. It takes a lot of skill and time to make just one patch. A friend who is a retired Brigadier General of the Indian Army told me they can be produced in twenty minutes. I believe he was referring to their rank insignia which consist of stars and bars. During World War II, some Navy rating badges for Chief Petty Officers were painstakingly hand bullion embroidered in detail by skilled women as illustrated by National Geographic.
A Cottage Industry
Particularly in Europe and even in the U.S. during the second world war, a good deal of the hand work and finishing was done at home. Patches had to be cut out of the fabric and trimmed to remove jump and bobbin stitches. In France during the first world war this I believe was common practice.
During the first world war a campaign to raise money for the war in Europe created the Liberty Loan program. Citizens and businesses would buy war bonds and stamps and as a premium were given a printed button or a divisional or corps patch for a unit in the AEF. These patches were woven usually with silk threads using what is known as BEVO process, a process developed in Germany to make clothing labels. A weaving loom is employed in a narrow width, usually only a few inches wide as a continuous ribbon, individual patches are cut into squares and rectangles and are lapped and sewn at the edge or left unfinished to frame or mount in scrapbooks by the families of the servicemen. These designs were too flimsy and too fragile to be of practical value worn on a field uniform, but sometimes were backed with wool uniform fabric and oversewn to make them more durable. This type of patch was worn by the German Army during World War II and proved popular. During the occupation of Germany a number of American patches were produced there and worn by American servicemen after the war. They made beautiful patches they are in demand by collectors. Details can be executed in their designs that are difficult to duplicate in embroidery.
Hand made bullion and embroidered
A topic of much debate due to the fact that dating hand made items can offer a challenge. Silver and gold were used to embellish the design. This was not the best I can tell, a thread or a yarn like that used in hand and machine embroidery but more of a braid, sometimes referred to as wire. Others are more versed in this style of manufacture than I am. Many of these patches or emblems were made in other than the United States. There is most definitely a craft and art associated in making them. To the best of my knowledge countries like England, France, Germany, Italy in Europe or in Asia in countries like India, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, Iran, Australia and New Zealand were sources of manufacture during World War II and thereafter. Being a hand art-form and made individually variations between patches made by the same company are detectable and often very slight. It has been my experience that over time the silver and gold braid will tarnish from oxidation from use and in storage. Clever individuals and companies have found ways to artificially age patches like this. The yarn, threads or floss used for the various colors are generally thicker (heavier weight gauge) than commercially machine embroidered patches and emblems. Each stitch is executed painstakingly by hand. These skilled artisans are adept and productive and work for comparatively low wages compared to European nations as I was informed by a friend who retired as a Army air defense artillery brigade commander in India. He told me all of the rank insignia is done today in that manner and only higher level commands wear shoulder flashes or formation marks.
Updated: April 16, 2011 by Tom Harvick
Continued in part 4.
Continued in part 4.