Welter Studio History
In 1964 Thomas Welter began to restore Minnesota’s fragile silk battle flags. Twenty one flags carried in battle in the Civil and Spanish American Wars had been on continuous exhibit since 1904 in the State Capitol Rotunda. Many flags were in extremely fragile and or fragmented condition. Funded by the State Legislature with Bill SF 1097 in 1963 this unusual restoration project expanded into a lifelong career.
Welter’s personal experience in the military and his own artistic talents gave him the interest and skills to tackle this large project. Participating in both WWII and Korea as an Army Air Corp pilot, he went on to volunteer for the National Guard and worked as the air maintenance supervisor at Holman fields. After the military Tom began a career at Montgomery Ward’s department store in custom display. At some point there we believe he learned how to painted signage. Interestingly, professional sign painters decorated silk battle flags in the late 19th early 20th century. Tom’s career and interest in the military along with his work as a sign painter prepared him to treat these fragile silk battle flags.
On January 21st, 1964 Katherine Scott, a Textile Conservator from New York, was hired for four days of consultation and training. Reviewing the flags Kathryn recommended and demonstrated treatment procedures to Tom. Describing restoration methodologies including the process of sandwiching a flag between two layers of sheer silk crepeline Tom had a lot to absorb. Upon leaving Kathryn gave Tom a source to order the sheer silk crepeline directly from a mill in Lyon France as it was not readily available in this country. Left on his own Tom had to figure out and develop his own treatments.
Tom began to develop his process of stabilizing the flags. Techniques were practiced on small novelty flags or silk scarves till a restoration process was developed. Equipment such as a steamers and wet cleaning tables had to be altered or created from scratch. Materials such as safe solvents and varnishes had to be identified. Finally, Tom developed his singular methodology to stabilize the flags by sandwiching them between silk crepeline secured in place with rows of machine zig-zag stitching in uniform horizontal rows. The use of machine stitching was unusual as it was more common to hand stitch fragile silk pieces. To execute this treatment Tom had a 1927 industrial sewing machine fabricated with a four foot long neck to facilitate sewing the flags without bunching them up under the neck.
Once completed a restored flag was stable for exhibition unfurled in the State Capitol Rotunda cases. The flags were again left on continuous exhibition for another 50 years. Thomas Welter was presented with a collection of fragile silk battle flags that were rapidly disintegrating, and threatening to fall to dust. While Tom’s restoration treatment may appear aggressive and destructive by today’s standards, without his work we would not have many of these flags here today. Tom Welter eventually established Welter Studios and went on to restore flags throughout the country.