Uniforms

Preserving military uniforms (Part II)

You want to protect and preserve that military uniform but where’s a safe place to put it in your home? 

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I chew leather!

You’re in a battle against nature.  As materials age, they break down slowly and deteriorate naturally.  A good storage environment can helps slow the process and prevent damage from these forms of natural deterioration:

  • Ultraviolet Light. Over time, ultraviolet light (such as from sunlight) will increase brittleness and discolour fabric.

  • High temperatures. Low temperatures may slow down the rate of fabric deterioration. High temperatures, however, can make fabric brittle.

  • Moisture. Moisture can cause mildew which stains and deteriorates fabric.

  • Insects. Insects (moths, silverfish, carpet beetles, etc.) eat fabric.

  • Pollution. Pollution (dust, pollen, chemicals, cigarette smoke, etc.) can dull, stain and increase the brittleness of fabric.

  • Pets. While you may love them dearly, pets can chew leather, tear fabric and urinate on and discolour fabric.

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The general rule of thumb for selecting a good location is to avoid storing the uniform in attics or basements or garages, against exterior walls, in direct sunlight, near furnaces or heating/air conditioning vents and in spaces below water pipes.  Whew, that’s a lot of rules.  So, what's left you ask?  Well, that would be an interior room... in a closet or wardrobe just like how you store your everyday clothes. 

If you follow these steps, the uniform will have a longer life!

Preserving military uniforms (Part I)

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Military uniforms are designed for war.  They’re tough and can take a lot of abuse, but they’re not indestructible.  Maybe you have a uniform that's been handed down to you that you want to keep in good shape.  There are things you can do at at home to preserve that uniform.

First things first

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Set yourself up in a well-lit space with a flat surface and enough room to work on the uniform. 

Leave drinks, food and pens out of the space to avoid accidents.  Don’t smoke in the space to avoid dropped ashes and burnt holes in the fabric. 

handle with care

Ideally, wear white cotton gloves when handling the uniform.  The gloves prevent the transfer of body oil, salt, hand lotion or dirt to the fabric.  But, if you don’t have gloves, use a clean cloth or paper towel to handle the uniform instead of your bare hands.  This is really important when handling metal because the acid from your skin can tarnish the metal. 

clean it

Avoid dry cleaning the uniform as the chemicals used in the dry-cleaning process cause wear and tear on fabric. 

Surface clean the uniform.  Cover the soft brush attachment of your vacuum cleaner with a nylon stocking, held in place with an elastic band, and vacuum the uniform lightly, inside and out, on a low setting.  The vacuuming removes dust and dirt that can damage the fabric (the sharp surfaces of silica in dust and dirt can cut and abrade fibres). 

Protect fabric from metal

Metal can rust and stain fabric.  Also, wool contains sulphur that actually attacks metal.  To protect the fabric of the uniform, cut a piece of Mylar plastic and place it behind metal buttons or other bits to act as a barrier.  Mylar plastic is available in art and craft stores or through archival suppliers like Carr McLean.

Store it

Ideally, store the uniform flat in a storage box that fits the uniform without folding it.  The storage box could be made of plastic or, better yet, acid-free paper.  Lightly stuff the coat shoulders with acid-free tissue paper to help them hold their shape and place tissue between any bends to prevent creasing.  Preservation products, such as acid-free tissue paper and boxes, can be purchased from archival suppliers like Carr McLean.

You can hang the uniform but, be warned, wire hangers just aren’t the way to go.  We’ve all seen the dents that wire hangers leave on shirt shoulders.  They can also stain fabric if exposed to moisture and cause seams to start to separate.  A cloth-coated, padded hanger will prevent this.  Make sure that the cloth covering on the hanger is colourless so that no dye can seep into the uniform.  You can buy cloth-coated, padded hangers in stores or make them at home. 

Place a protective covering over the hung uniform to reduce damage to the fabric from dust and other dirt.  You can use a breathable cotton storage bag or just an old white cotton sheet.  Use one bag or sheet per uniform because the dye from the fabric from one uniform can seep into the other if exposed to moisture. 

Check it

Once stored in a safe location, check the uniform once a year to keep an eye out for any damage that may have occurred.  Repair any damage promptly.

If you follow these steps, the uniform will have a longer life! 

How the uniform changed: puttees

During the First World War, soldiers of the Regiment wore puttees as part of their uniform. Puttees were narrow strips of khaki-colour fabric wrapped in an over-lapping spiral pattern around the lower leg, above the ankle boots up to below the knee. 

“The puttee was almost like a bandage made of [knitted] wool, and it was wrapped around the leg,” explained Douglas Cordeaux, from Fox Brothers & Co Ltd, from Wellington, in Somerset.

”The beauty of it was that it didn’t need sizes - it would also stop your boot being sucked off in mud,” Mr Cordeaux added.

The firm made an estimated 12m pairs of putties, which unwrapped would have stretched for 41,000 miles (66,000 km) - enough to go around the coastline of the UK twice.
— Excerpt from the BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-25879184)

They were good in some ways

Puttees provided the soldier’s leg support, prevented dirt and insects entering both boots and trousers and provided a measure of protection against the weather and abrasions. When wrapped properly, puttees helped to insulate the leg from cold weather and to reduce injury without restricting movement. In hot weather, the material breathed and could be removed and washed. Importantly, puttees could be used as a dressing or splint, or to provide support to a part of the body.

… and not so good in others

While puttees helped to prevent or at least reduce damage to soldiers’ legs, they could also cause harm. Once they became wet and if worn in cold weather, the puttees could cause frostbite and extreme pain. Also, “tightly wrapped puttees might have encouraged or aggravated trench foot by restricting blood flow to the feet. Trench foot was prevented by keeping boots well-oiled and generously sized, loosening the puttees, rubbing oil into feet and lower legs and wearing clean, dry socks”. (Canadian War Museum Artifact Backgrounder on Puttees)

but they’re Still relevant today

In the Second World War the Regiment’s puttees were replaced largely with canvas web anklets. Puttees are, however, still used today in sport such as hiking, climbing, cross-country skiing and backpacking. Their lightweight, breathable and multi-purpose nature make them practical gear to have to get by with less but still stay safe, healthy and comfortable on the trail.