For nine months, Amy Venzke has spent her working days lying flat on her stomach, supported by a metal platform suspended four inches above the flag that inspired the words for America's national anthem.

Her hands, holding forceps and curved scissors, dangle over the fragile material. With surgical precision, she snips a single stitch. Snip, snip. Two snips for each of the 1.7 million stitches that hold an old linen backing to the Star-Spangled Banner.

That linen backing has to go, but very carefully.

The snipping--a job Venzke shares with five other restoration specialists--is one step in a three-year, $18 million project to clean and conserve the 187-year-old flag. The work in a custom-built laboratory in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is believed to be the largest single textile conservation project ever undertaken by a museum.

"I don't tend to get too caught up in the fact that I work on an icon," Venzke said. "If you think too much about its icon status, you become too scared to touch it."

But her touch must be delicate. From its honored display space in Flag Hall, where it had hung from a painted backboard for 24 years, the banner looked vibrant, whole. But on closer inspection, it is easy to see sections that are gauze-like in their thinness. In some stripes, more than 60 percent of the original fabric is gone.

"I was enormously struck by and actually moved by the fact that the flag itself is virtually a tissue now," said Lawrence M. Small, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. "You used to see it hanging on the wall. I don't think that people really grasped that what was giving it its body was the linen backing and that the flag itself couldn't hang on the wall in a million years."

The flag survived the 1814 bombardment by the British at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The sight of the banner flying over the fort the next morning inspired Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer, to write the words of "Star-Spangled Banner."

After the battle, there were only 11 rends and holes for Baltimore flagmaker Mary Pickersgill to repair.

For the next three generations, the flag remained in the care of the family of Lt. Col. George Armistead, the fort commander during the attack. In 1873, a Naval officer who wanted to photograph the flag attached a canvas backing.

Nearly 100 years after the battle, the family donated the flag to the Smithsonian. Two years later, in 1914, the Smithsonian hired a professional flag restorer, Amelia Fowler, to remove the old, soiled canvas backing and replace it with a linen backing that would protect and support the flag.

Fowler and a team of 14 embroiderers labored for about six weeks attaching the linen to the flag, using a special stitch Fowler had patented. The density of the stitches--9 to 12 per square inch--created a web over the entire flag. The flag endured a fair amount of stretching, bunching and folding to get it to conform to its new rectangular backing.

The Fowler stitches were dyed to match the color of the banner's wool. (The stars are made of cotton--a luxury fabric when the flag was made.)

Although the stitches kept the flag firmly in place and helped preserve it, they also covered a multitude of sins and obscured the flag's true condition. Light, oxidation, air pollution, temperature changes and the simple, unavoidable passage of time have taken a toll.

When the Smithsonian determined in 1994 that the flag needed extensive conservation work, it was clear that the stitches and the backing would have to be removed.

"The flag's condition is more apparent now that the stitches are off," said Marilyn Zoidis, curator of what will be the new flag exhibit in fall 2002. "We see losses that were totally disguised by the stitches."

The team also sees islands--fragments that have become detached from the flag itself and are held in place only by the stitches connecting them to the linen.

The removal of Fowler's work, however, has lead to several positive discoveries and may provide clues to a few of the flag's mysteries. Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, chief conservator of the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project, said that the colors of the flag were more vivid than expected once the faded, dyed-to-match stitches were removed.

Stains believed to be ink found on one section of the flag may be the signature of Armistead--thus confirming a long-held belief that he had autographed the flag.

A number of previously undocumented patches have also been found, bringing the count to 27.

While the tops of the Fowler stitches all have been double snipped on the flag side, the backs of the stitches remain on the linen side. Conservators have attached a temporary support layer to the front side of the flag. This fabric, a lightweight, open-weave polyester called marquisette, was sewn to the linen, not the flag.

The flag must now be carefully rolled, using custom tools in the lab, so that it can be turned linen-side up.

The stitches then will be gently pulled through the linen side. The old linen itself must be peeled away in small, controllable amounts, Thomassen-Krauss said. "Otherwise, it would be too stressful on the fabric of the flag. We won't be able to see the flag [which will be face down] and don't want to risk pulling too hard."

In some particularly fragile areas, the linen may need to be removed one thread at a time. The team predicts that this next stage could be even more painstaking than clipping the stitches on the other side. A layer of marquisette will be added as the linen is taken off.

What comes next is uncertain.

"No one of this generation has seen the back side of the flag," Thomassen-Krauss said. Conservators will need time to assess and photograph the backless flag before proceeding.

Beyond establishing how to best clean the flag, the conservators must determine the best way to stabilize the flag. An appropriate fabric to permanently support the flag has yet to be chosen.

"We must be careful, methodical, deliberate," Zoidis said. "Decisions are made based on what the flag tells us. What it can tolerate, what it needs."

But with proper treatment, the flag could last 500 to 1,000 years, Thomassen-Krauss said.

At the moment, the flag remains on display in its environmentally controlled lab. Looking through an enormous glass window, more than 2.5 million visitors have watched the work since it began in May 1999.

"It's very hard to be an American and not be moved by the flag," Small said. "When you realize what a powerful symbol it is for all of us, you realize how important preservation is."

The Flag's History

1813

Commissioned by Lt. Col. George Armistead for Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore flagmaker and her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, finish the flag for a cost of $405.90.

1814

Attack on Fort McHenry in September by the British in effort to take Baltimore. A Georgetown lawyer, Francis Scott Key, witnesses the garrison flag flying over the fort the next morning, signalling that the fort has not fallen. He writes a poem to commem-orate the occasion, which he later names the "Star-Spangled Banner" and sets to the tune of a popular English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven."

1818

Presented to Armistead sometime before his death in 1818. The flag remains in his family for three generations.

1873

Photographed for the first time. A canvas backing is sewn on for support.

1876

Displayed at the nation's Centenial Exposition in Philadelphia.

1907

Loaned to the Smithsonian.

1912

Made a permanent gift to Smithsonian, with the stipulation that it will always be displayed to the public.

1914

Linen backing applied by professional flag restorer, Amelia Fowler, and a team of embroidiers. Hung in a horizontal display case in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industry Building.

1931

Following a 20-year effort during which more than 40 bills and joint resolutions are introduced in Congress, the "Star-Spangled Banner" becomes the official national anthem.

1942

Removed for safekeeping with other Smithsonian artifacts during World War II and stored near Luray Caverns until 1944.

1964

Displayed vertically in Flag Hall of the National Museum of American History.

1982

Surface cleaned with a hand-held vacuum.

1984

Covered with an opaque screen that is lowered once an hour to give visitors an unobstructed view.

1994

Flag screen is removed after cables used to hoist it break. Plans for current restoration begin.

1996

Conference with conservators, historians, museum experts from around the country, who discuss the flag preservation project.

1998

Flag is removed from its display case and transferred to the laboratory.

1999

Conservation work begins.

O, Say You Can See

Conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner began in May 1999 and will continue -- visible to the public through a glass laboratory in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History -- for the next three years. The $18 million project is believed to be one of the largest single textile conservation projects ever undertaken by a museum.

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

Origin: Commissioned for Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1813. Cost to make: $405.90.

Size: Originally 30 feet by 42 feet, now 30 feet by 34 feet Area: 1,020 square feet.

Weight: Without backing, about 45 pounds. Backing adds about 100 pounds.

Material: Made from about 266 yards of bunting, a loosely woven wool. The cotton stars are about 26 inches across.

So Why Does the Star-Spangled Banner Have . . .

The flag may seem large by today's standards, but its size was customary for 19th century garrison flags, designed to hang from 90-foot-high flagpoles. The flag's current condition reflects its long and storied history. Among some of the unusual features are:

SIGNATURE

Written documents indicate that the flag bears the signature of Lt. Col. George Armistead, commander of Ft. McHenry during its bombardment Sept. 13-14, 1814. The conservation team has yet to find the location of the signature, which may lie on the linen-covered side of the flag.

1.7 MILLION EXTRA STITCHES

Efforts have been made throughout the years to stabilize the flag. Most notably, the work of Amelia Fowler, a professional flag restorer hired by the Smithsonian in 1914 to remove the flag's canvas backing and add a linen backing. Fowler and her team of 14 used a special stitch she had patented to attach this backing, alleviating strain on the flag fabric when it was on display. The entire flag was covered with stitches at a density of 9 to 12 stitches per square inch, for a total of 1.7 million stitches. The work took about six weeks.

A MISSING STAR

Believed to have been given by Armistead's widow to a "political personage," according to family papers.

15 STARS AND 15 STRIPES

This flag is one of the few 15-star, 15-stripe flags in existence today. In 1794, Congress mandated that all 15 existing states be represented on flags; by 1818, Congress reduced the number of stripes to only the 13 original states. A star was to be added for each new state.

PATCHES

Eleven patches covered the flag by 1912. Two are believed to mask holes made during the 1814 bombardment. Currently, there are 27 patches. Some are patches within patches, some have been patched on both sides. All are made from wool.

A LARGE PALE AREA

There is a hole in the flag where a star has been removed. A painted backdrop, used to support the flag when it hung in Flag Hall, gives the impression that the star is still there.

A RED CHEVRON

Believed to be the remnant of an "A," most likely sewed on by Armistead's widow.

A RAGGED EDGE

About 8 feet of the flag has been removed over the years in small pieces, commonly used as mementos for veterans who served at Fort McHenry and other dignitaries.

The Conservation Effort

Despite long-term efforts to maintain the health of the flag, the fabric has deteriorated from stress, light damage, oxidation, air pollution and temperature changes. Conservators must be extremely careful when handling any part of the flag. In some areas, the fabric is so worn, it appears gauze-like. In other areas, frayed pieces have become detached, creating small islands of fabric, held in place only to the linen backing.

THE TEAM AND THE TOOLS

Conservators used an array of surgical instruments to remove Fowler's stitches. These tools, including curved needles and threads of varying strength, will be used to attach a new support layer to the flag.

Each of the 1.7 million stitches was detached with two precision snips. Specialists used small scissors to cut the Fowler stitches in two places. The thread then could be removed without straining the fabric.

THE LABORATORY

The laboratory for the conservation work is similar to "clean rooms" used in biomedical research. It is pressurized to 2.5 pounds per square foot above the normal air pressure to keep outside contaminants from seeping in. The temperature is kept at a constant 68 to 70 degrees. Humidity levels must be maintained at 50 percent. Levels above this could lead to mold; levels below could lead to embrittlement of the flag's fibers. Low light levels are maintained in the lab.

Suspended about four inches above the flag's surface is a mobile platform that can hold as many as seven workers. Conservators are required to wear protective clothing -- hairnets, gowns and shoes -- that never leave the lab.

Currently, the flag rests flat on a table made up of risers similar to those used for stages. When the flag needs to be turned, it is gently rolled on a 35-foot-long cylinder, similar to a paper towel holder.

THE PROCESS

1. The webbing of stitches Fowler applied in 1914 has partially obscured the surface of the flag. Before conservators can fully assess the flag's condition, the stitches and backing must be removed. The team spent nine months clipping the tops of the Fowler stitches.

2. Attach a protective support layer to face of the flag.

3. Gently roll the flag, then unroll it again to expose the linen side. The remaining threads will be pulled through and the backing will be removed in small sections.

4. Test flag for measurements of acidity, color fastness and develop a cleaning protocol that will not damage the flag.

5. Attach permanent support layers to both sides of the flag and reinstall the flag in the museum.

SOURCE: Smithsonian Institution