The blend of optimism and naiveté brought tears to Michele Pagan's eyes. She had slowly humidified the fragile white silk flag, then painstakingly spread the tattered and grimy piece on the huge worktable in the back of her part-time home in Brookfield, Vermont.
A fabric conservator's work is precise, not emotional. But looking at the white silk flag that the first Vermont regiment to fight in the Civil War carried into battle stirred Pagan's emotions. White silk. What were they thinking?
"That first regiment signed up for three months," she says. "Maybe that's why you hand-paint a white, silk flag to go off to war … you were thinking this was some little thing, and you'd be back …"
For much of the last three decades, Pagan's profession and pleasure has been taking care of these fragile inheritances in hopes that their stories will communicate with future generations.
Pagan, who earned her UVM bachelor's degree in home economics education in 1973, was working as a teacher in Hartford, Connecticut a few years out of UVM. One day while leading her students in a values-clarification exercise she started pondering the big questions herself. If money were no object, what would you do with your time?
Pagan realized she wanted to preserve the culture. And, as a seamstress who had been making dresses since girlhood, fabric seemed like the right place to start.
She soon traded teaching for graduate school at the University of Connecticut and internships, before being hired as Colonial Williamsburg's first-ever textile preservationist. Her work there led to a series of high-profile projects: Years at the Smithsonian Institution with the team restoring the original Star-Spangled Banner, a turn preparing a traveling exhibition of Jackie Kennedy's clothes. But the best work, she says, is right now, between the regiment flag restoration project and some pioneering work conserving Vermont's fragile collection of painted theater curtains.
"I felt like this must be the peak of my career — and yet, I've said that before. But this is," she says.