Textile Preservation Associates has been conserving artifacts and preparing them for display since it was opened in 1987 by Fonda Thomsen.
Cathy Heffner came on board in 1989 and bought the business from Thomsen in 2007.
A 1976 graduate of Brunswick (Md.) High School, Heffner’s participation in a work-study program in National Park Service conservation labs during her senior year led to a full-time job as a textile conservator with the agency. She perfected her craft during her park service years and later through working with Thomsen in Ranson.
“I learned on the job,” she said.
Today, Textile Preservation Associates includes Heffner and two part-time staffers, her brother, Toby, a technician, and Donna Tissue, who handles administrative, shipping and receiving, and customer service duties.
When it comes to historic artifacts with Heffner, don’t confuse restoration with conservation.
“They are two different processes,” she said. “We don’t restore anything or try to make it appear as it did when it was new. We preserve what’s left of the original, whatever state it was in when we got it.”
Heffner said the work is tedious and physically demanding.
“There’s a lot of standing and bending,” she said.
On Friday, Heffner was bent over a Civil War battle flag sent to her by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in South Carolina.
Her tools for that job were a small bottle of distilled water and a roll of paper towels.
The condition, composition and planned use of an artifact determines what treatment it gets using the philosophy of stabilization and minimal intervention.
Holes in fabric are left as they were found.
“We don’t replace them,” Heffner said. “We allow something to be missing. We only conserve what’s there.”
Especially fragile pieces are often sandwiched between two layers of a product called polyester crepeline, the only synthetic used in the process.
Many finished works are protected and displayed in archival-quality frames.
One recent example to come out of the shop was a case to protect a new 5-by-8-foot signature quilt made by local women for Shepherdstown’s 250th anniversary. It was hung on a wall in the town hall earlier this month.
It can take 200 hours or more to conserve an artifact, depending its size, age and condition.
It’s also very expensive.
“People are astounded by how much it can cost,” Tissue said.
Among Textile Preservation Associates’ clients are major museums, and state and local historic societies. The business has dealt with flag collections from more than a dozen states and historical commissions.
Most of Heffner’s work involves conserving flags, about 75 percent of which are from the Civil War era, Tissue said. Some date to the Revolutionary War.
Two American flags flown and photographed on Mount Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II were sent to the shop for treatment.
“They had to be vacuumed, humidified, flattened and framed,” Heffner said. “They’re hanging in the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.”
Heffner also has worked on Union Col. Joshua Chamberland’s 20th Maine Regiment’s Gettysburg battle flag, the Crestar Bank collection of modern fiber, 17th-century crewel drapes from the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C., the flag from the Battle of San Jacinto in Texas in 1836, and anniversary quilts from the National Guard Museum in Washington, D.C.
Heffner’s favorite commission work is putting fractured flags back together.