The collecting of military patches has become a popular hobby in the last few decades. Some people collect because they were in the military, and some because they are curious about the military or a certain war. If you are going to start collecting or have already, it is important to know how the patches are made and how to tell a real one from a fake one.
Over the years, US Army insignia has been produced using a variety of machine embroidery techniques. Some are very old and all have characteristic features. The first work was done in the United States in the late 1880s, on 107 class trade or Irish swing-needle machines. Domestic machines were also used and these techniques are still employed by other countries who embroider patches, with great skill and artistry.
From World War II to the late 1950s, the US Army wore tunics and jackets in a color generally called khaki. The official name of this color was Olive Drab Shade No 33 or No 51, and there was a lighter color Khaki, Army Shade No 1. Shoulder patches from this period have either a narrow tan or pale khaki edge, or no visible edge at all.
In 1957 the introduction of new Army Green Uniform saw the move to patches with a dark green edge. By the mid-1960s the characteristic feature of machine-made badges was the merrowed edge. This is a solid band of chain stitching which stands proud of the badge and which ends in a “tail” of thread which is normally stuck to the back of the badge. The edge helps to protect the material and prevent fraying.
Based on this information, a World War II badge which has a merrowed edge is a modern copy. The problem with copies and fakes is where badges are produced locally by small-scale operations. During World War II the British produced equipment and clothing as well as badges for the US Army. Singer machines which could produce variable satin stitches and straight filling stitches were used. Some overseas copies of US badges are recognizable by the use of colored cloth in the construction of the badge to save thread. In early designs this was with felts, but in the Far East silks have become popular.
Patches produced for US servicemen in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines have a unique charm of their own. As a rough guide, the Thai-made patches are the finest, using small panels of matched silk to make up the background colors. The least well finished are the Vietnamese-made, they were often put together on a domestic sewing machine. The problem with this is that finer detail must be done by hand. Conventional sewing machine-made patches require the embroiderer to move the fabric so that it is over-sewed many times with ordinary stitches. The Vietnamese-made patches sewn in this way are rather crude. The method is unsuitable when fine detail or heavier weight of work is required.
Philippine patches are better made and continue to be produced. An experienced American collector once stated that he had a contact in Manila who could make a perfect copy of any badge you could name. Valuable and rare privately-made Vietnam era badges could therefore be faked. Ageing can be achieved by an overnight soaking in coffee of a dilute soft drink and a little distressing. Stone-washed designer jeans get much the same treatment.
The Japanese and Taiwanese also produced patches and insignia during the Vietnam War and their quality is superior to any Far Eastern work. The only way a fake patch handmade in the Far East can be identified with certainty is to examine its origins and likely availability. Where only a few hundred were produced and worn in Vietnam or Korea the chances of a real badge coming onto the market are rare.
The real problem arises with World War II, Korean or Vietnam War patches which are collectable if they are locally made. A good modern handmade copy looks like the real thing. Pakistan has an internationally-respected reputation for its gold and silver thread work; World War II badges like the China, India and Burma “Flying Tigers,” can be faked and are so collectible and attractive that they still command good prices. When there is no pretence at faking, many veterans are proud to wear a top-quality gold and silver thread version of their divisional patch on a blazer or jacket.
Where patches have been unstitched from a shirt or jacket the threads often remain. Though these could be faked, this is a relatively reliable and quick way of checking if the badge is authentic and has been worn on clothing. Many patches are manufactured, but never issued, and though they are good representations of insignia, they went straight from the workshop to the dealer, never stopping on a uniform en route. Another quick check is the starch and wear on the badge. Since many have been worn on fatigue shirts the starch has entered the fabric, and they may even retain the crease from the sleeve. In addition, the effects of sunshine and rain will bleach out the color in a patch that has seen service. Locally made insignia from Vietnam are particularly prone to fading.
I hope this information helps you along your military patch collecting journey.