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Weekly Wings of WWI (the backsides)


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I wanted to focus on the back of bullion wings (primarily WWI, but the technology is pretty much the same for all time periods).


The use of tinsel or metallic thread as a decorative art has been around for a very long time (perhaps going back as far as the 13-14th century).  It is used to embellish royal, military, fraternal/masonic, and ecclesiastical garments, and typically uses metallic threads (gold, silver, and copper) alone or in combination with wool or silk threads to form complex and attractive lace like patterns.  Because of the cost and skill required, it was usually used to denote status or rank.  Found as embellishments of uniforms (the more metallic lace used, typically the higher the rank), badges, rank insignia, branch of service, etc, were common within the military of most countries (especially in Europe and the Americas).  Here are a couple examples of Revolutionary and Civil war bullion.


During the industrial revolution of Europe and the Americas in the 1800, textile manufacturing rapidly advanced and became more and more automated. By the start of WWI, various techniques, like manufacturing large amounts of uniforms and fabrics had formed a significant part of the economies of  France, the UK, and the USA. Bullion work played an important (if relatively minor) role during this time.  Typically produced by small companies and/or household tailors, bullion insignia were usually made by hand by women and seamstresses (although there may have been some larger scale industrial manufacturing as well).  I suspect that in many cases, these items were made by request.  A previous member of this forum once told me that he had visited a tailor shop in England and talked to the current owner.  This gentleman still recalled watching his grandmother hand making making bullion wings in their shop for various American pilots during WWI.


Most bullion insignia made during WWI and WWII share many similarities, although a bewildering array of variations also exist.  For WWI bullion wings (including French, British, Italian and America made insignia) the initial process started out by using a dark black or blue melton wool fabric.  Melton cloth is traditionally made of wool and is woven in a twill form. IIt is a very solid cloth in which the twill weave pattern is completely concealed due to the finishing processes.  At first glance Melton wool looks a lot like felt which is made in a different manner and is less robust.  While I don't want to say that felt was never used (there are always exceptions), sometimes you do see other types of fabric, like velvet, being used.


Glued or sewn to the melton base fabric is usually a stiffening layer (it can be a glued mesh, burlap or other support material).  Then the bullion threads are sewn to the front of the insignia, through the melton and the backing material. From behind, a bullion wing will almost always have these three layers (base fabric, stiffening backing, and thread work).  In many (but not all) a fourth layer would have been glued to cover the back of the insignia. Sometimes it was a light tissue like paper, another layer of burlap or even linen cloth.


In some cases, the bullion threads were "padded" with the use of lumps of material (wool, horse hair, cotton) to give the bullion a 3D look.  The wing would then be trimmed to give the insignia a final shape.  Rarely, the wings would be mounted on a backing plate of one sort or another so that they could be removed from the uniform.


Because of the wide variations in manufacturing, location, seamstresses/tailors, etc, there aren't many "rules" that can be used when studying WWI/WWII bullion wings.  More than likely, they simply used what they had on hand when making these items.



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To start, here are some "traditional" bullion wings showing the stiff black (sometimes it is white) mesh backing.  I suspect that this is a broad weave fabric that was treated with dope or glue to make it stiff.


I suspect that these are all American made wings, but again... for every rule there is an exception.


Many American-made WWII US aviator wings have this type of backing.





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You also frequently find wings that have a paper backing glued over the back of the wing. You can see the burlap type stiffening under the tissue paper.



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Linen cloth was also sometimes used without the tissue paper backing.  In general, I tend to see these type of wings being made in France.


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Burlap or other types of fabric were sometimes used as backing for the threads.  Here is a good mixture of wings with burlap-style backings.





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Finally, this observer wing makes the point of using what was on hand.  This wing has a red fabric that I suspect was remnants from a British uniform fabric.  There may have been a covering layer that has been lost over the years, because I can see traces of glue on the wing.


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1) it is hard to reproduce the "aging" of fabric naturally.  Many of the melton fabrics were colored using a combination of aniline (a common extract of coal tar) and other compounds which created the first mass produced chemical dye.  These dyes are light sensitive and when exposed to (say sunlight) will break down from black or blue colors to purples and brownish colors.

This can be (apparently) by exposing these fabrics to strong light but since more common dyes are now used in modern fabrics, it is hard to recreate.  This is a bullion wing in which the original black/blue color of the melton has become bleached to a mauve or purple/grey color.


2) The part of the wing that is exposed to light will bleach out, but not the part of the wing that isn't exposed (like the back).  People who try to "bleach" or age a wing using artificial compounds (like bleach or tea) usually bleach or stain the back of a wing. This is usually a dead give away of faking. The first photo shows a wing that is sewn to a uniform.  The annaline dyes have faded to a purplish color.


While it is hard to see in this photo, the front of this wing is slightly more faded than the back of the wing.



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A really excellent post and it should be mandatory review by any wing collector.  The pursuit of bullion wings is fraught with reproductions--ranging from silly fantasies to outright frightening forgeries.  Posts like this one go a long way toward helping others understand; "what to look for" when assessing a 100 or 75 year old wing.


Amazing work!



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Another sign of reproductions (and this seems to be especially true of airship and balloon pilot wings) is the use of old wool blanket material.  This example also illustrate the way that bleaching chemicals will result in unnatural aging of the material.  The front and back of this example show the same color because the material was soaked in a bath (probably of diluted bleach) that resulted in both sides of the insignia getting treated.


WWI vintage wool blanket material could be dyed a variety of colors (white, green, light blue, etc) but the fabric was typically thicker and has a rougher nap/weave than melton material.  If you have WWI bullion wings (or RAF/RCAF/RCAF etc) in your collection look at the edge.  Usually, a qood quality melton will be relatively thin (about the width of a penny).  Wool blankets will be much thicker.  If you have a known reproduction and a good wing, check this out.  Once you have handled a few good wings, the thin and tight weave of melton will stand out compared to the thick and rougher weave of the fake items.


The last picture is of a (probably) 30's wing.  It shows the relative thickness of the melton fabric.  I will try to take some edge on photos later.








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Of course there are always the "Pakistan-made" fakes.  The patch guys could probably go on for weeks about this, but usually the Paki-made items have a black or gray tissue paper glued to the back. 


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Finally, sometimes I will sniff and "taste" bullion wings.  Old fabric and insignia can have a warm and dusty smell (in some cases you can even small tobacco smoke residues).  Artificially aged fabric can often have a "bleachy" or chemical smell.  Also (if you are brave and don't have any pride), you can put you tongue on the bullion.  Chemically aged bullion will often have a bitter taste. You don't have to give them a big suck or drool on them, but you can often tell using your sense of taste or smell if chemicals were involved.  He who shall not be named once sent me an email saying that my advice was stupid and that people who licked their wings could get sick as the chemicals used to age bullion can be toxic.  So, be careful!

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As Chris noted, there are a relatively large number of fakes of WWI vintage bullion wings.  The techniques are easy to duplicate by modern day reproduction artists.  For example, sometimes old bullion thread is repurposed from relatively cheap bullion badges (say USN hat badges) and then used to make fake WWI bullion badges.  Sometimes the bullion and cloth is artificially aged using various chemicals.

What is frustrating, especially for novice collectors is that real WWI bullion wings are relatively scarce and hard to find. Clearly the more examples you handle and study, the more knowledge you will have to help you identify the bad wings.  One way around this paradox is to really study those bullion wings that are so common and cheap that their is little profit or utility in faking them.  The same basic techniques and material were used up to modern days... and the perfect candidates would be USN aviator wings.  They are common, relatively cheap, and (for the most part) easy to find as original vintage items. 

I always like to study USN bullion wings because they also give you a really good idea of what a vintage wing looks like.  It is a simple place to start studying bullion backsides.



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There are other European wings made in France and the UK (including Canada, British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, etc), and Germany (post war especially) that can be studied.  This is a recent (NON US) wing that I believe comes from the 30's (or maybe 20's).  It clearly is of UK manufacture (probably represents the RNAF fleet arm pilot badge), but it shows how a British made bullion wing can look like.  Note that the color of the yarn that makes the jewels in the crown is slightly bleached out compared to the color of the yarn on the backside of the wing.  This type of "brighter on the back than the front" is always a good sign.



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This is such an illuminating thread, I thought I would add a few more examples for study:





All of the above original wings are what would commonly be considered "American" made type Reserve Military Aviator badges.  The ratios presented, while certainly not statistically significant, tend to illustrate the general commonality of the various backing stiffeners.  Note that three have white, coarsely "waffle" woven stiffeners.  One has a black coarsely "waffle" woven stiffener and one appears to have a coarse canvas type stiffener.  When handling WW1 era badges, collectors will generally find that most encountered have the white stiffener.  Slightly less common is the black stiffener.  The third, and least common stiffeners used during this period, specifically with respect to American made wings, are every other type of stiffener.  Thus when examining an American made, sew on type embroidered badge, one of the first areas I look to is the stiffener.  If it has something besides the coarse "waffle" woven stiffener, my wing-collector Spidey-sense goes off and I start looking even harder at the badge.


A non waffle woven stiffener is not in and of itself a negative for the badge, as the original badge above amply illustrates, but because this feature makes the badge's construction slightly unusual, should be a springboard for an even closer examination of the badge.



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Good addition to the thread.  Here are some pictures I grabbed off the internet for "fair use".  These show some of the likely ways bullion wings could have been made.  The first photo shows some women working on bullion items (I suspect from the 1930's for King George's corronation).  The next photo shows some local French seamstresses working on something (I'm going to say bullion wings...) whilst a number of doughboys watch.  Finally, a WWII vintage photograph of a workshop making uniforms.  Once can easily imagine a "bullion badge" table where some workers added various embellishments to the uniforms (or made badges/rank insignia, etc).

These photos kind of give you an idea of what it was likely like when bullion wings were being made.


For many WWI US officers, they probably went to a tailor or uniform shop to purchase their kit.  Here a number of adverts for British RAF tailor shops from the period.  As you can see, a pilot could have gotten all of his uniforms, rank and badges supplied at one place.  I suspect there were an equal number of venues for French, Italian and American pilots.  A fair number of American airmen were actually trained by the French once they arrived in country.  I do not believe that all pilots were first trained in the US.  But that is a thread for another day.






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42 minutes ago, cwnorma said:

 If it has something besides the coarse "waffle" woven stiffener, my wing-collector Spidey-sense goes off and I start looking even harder at the badge.


And this is the point where I start sniffing and tasting the badge.... LOL.


There is something that I call collector bias. There is a tendency to be more accepting of what we "expect", and that isn't always what is true.  I liken that to the classic dealer conversation:


1) I know its good because I have one in my collection!  Or its counterpart 2) Well, I've never seen one like this, so it must be bad. 

Then there is the RB caveat...In which Ron Burkey has one for sale for $1000 for, so it must be legit (not to pick on Ron, who is a great guy!) but I have heard that many times.


Over time, we tend to pick and select for what we are comfortable with, and sometimes those one-offs, variations, etc get left behind.

My thinking with bullion is only buy what you like.  The major factor for me is if the workmanship is well done and the artistry is pleasing.  Collect what you like and you should always be happy.  That doesnt mean the rest of us wont roll our eyes at you...  Just kidding.

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Of course there are always the "Pakistan-made" fakes.  The patch guys could probably go on for weeks about this, but usually the Paki-made items have a black or gray tissue paper glued to the back. 
Oh yeah we could, lol

Sent from my moto g(7) play using Tapatalk

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The Rooster

Good thread Patrick!

Here is the back of what I believe is a WW2 or Pre WW2 Navy or Marine Corps Bullion wing.

The clutch posts are brass colored. I removed the color from the image to make the pattern in the backing fabric clearer

so it can be sen better..


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That is a very handsome wing!  The lady who made them was no doubt rightly proud of her art!


Here are a few more images of backs of wings.  This time, some European made variations.  Three of the four photos came from the internet so fair use for educational purposes is claimed for those.  All of the below are original WW1 era wings:




There are differences between European and American construction techniques and it can be hard to "get it all down."  The best thing to do is study as many good photos, and handle as many good wings as you can to get a feel for judging the good from the bad and the downright ugly.



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