Flags are one of humankind’s oldest forms of public display and methods for communicating powerful symbolic messages. It’s amazing how a flag can stir the heart, drive emotions, and motivate people to take pride in their country or other causes.
A Brief History
No historian knows for sure when the first flags were used, but some records show the Chinese used flags in the 11th Century B.C. For material, the best guess is that the Chinese used silk.
It is known that early Roman flags centuries later were made from rough linen cloth. Linen is derived from flax.
Fast forward again to Medieval times and silk became a widely popular choice for flags for a combination of qualities wanted in a great flag. Silk is durable, colorful, and waves wonderfully in the wind. Wool, cotton, or linen was sometimes also used.
First American Flags
What about early American flags displayed on and before 1776, the year of our nation’s birth?
You may be surprised to learn that most were made from hemp fiber –- not cotton, wool, or linen. George Washington himself planted hemp on his agricultural estates.
Most historians agree that the story of Betsy Ross sewing the very first American flag at the request of George Washington is a myth, by the way. Even so, if Betsy Ross had sewn the first Stars & Stripes, it likely would have been made from hemp.
Exciting New Fabric Development
Since the birth of America more than 200 years ago, cloth and fabric technology has advanced to an astonishing degree. Things really took off when the first true synthetic fabric, Nylon, was invented by DuPont in 1935.
Other synthetic fibers and fabrics would follow. Just a few are Terylene and Orlon (1941), Dacron (1950), Polyester (1958), Spandex (1959), and many more. Incidentally, Rayon was invented way back in 1884 in France, but it is not technically a synthetic fiber.
Fiber for Flags
Most American flags for sale today are made from nylon, polyester, or cotton.
The choice of which fabric to use depends on several factors. For example, is the flag intended to be used indoors or outdoors? Will they be used on a military base or the grounds of an elementary school? What about flag fabrics for ships where they must endure the high winds and harsh spray of salty seas? In fact, flag manufacturers must consider a wide array of factors, such as the prevalence of snow, insects, pollution, chemicals, ice, mold, humidity, extreme heat/cold, and more.
Two Flag Types
In addition to choosing the correct fabric, one must consider the two basic kinds of flags made today. They are:
1. Printed Flags
Usually the most inexpensive option, printed flags are often one piece of material printed on one or both sides. They are thin and one-dimensional. They favor the use of lightweight fabric and fabric that matches well with inks for printing vibrant colors.
2. Fully Sewn Flags
Unlike printed flags, sewn flags are made from several pieces of fabric that must be assembled and stitched together. Here yet another choice is required: Lock stitching or chain stitching. These flags are more expensive because they are more labor-intensive and use more material than printed flags.
Nylon: The Flagship of Flag Fabrics
Nylon is an excellent choice to make flags because of many factors. It’s lightweight yet strong and resilient. It’s difficult to tear. Nylon’s elasticity means it can maintain its shape. It’s easy to wash, can be recycled – and many more reasons.
Another synthetic fiber, polyester, is melt-spun like Nylon and enjoys many of the same attributes noted above for Nylon. It is more expensive, however, and attracts dirt and lint more readily because of static electricity. Polyester is not as environmentally friendly as Nylon.
Cotton does not have the many advantages of synthetic fibers like Nylon and polyester, but the sheer elegance, look and feel of a cotton flag is a beautiful thing. It has an unmatched draping quality that makes them best for indoor display. Thus, cotton is the best fiber for a flag for indoor ceremonial purposes, such as draping a casket or presenting a folded flag to the survivors of a military veteran.
More Than Meets the Eye
The process of making flags is far more complex and involved than most people realize – but getting it right is important.
A beautiful flag can stir the heart, lift spirits, and instill pride. It’s also a symbol of comfort for occasions like funerals or observances of solemn public memorials. For these reasons, a flag must be made with the highest quality materials and only with those materials that are fitting for where it will be displayed.
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