How to stitch an American flag

Published: Friday, October 12, 2001

Move over, Betsy Ross
How to stitch an American flag

by Jill Slater

The emblem of the land I love
The home of the free and the brave

("Grand Old Flag" - George M. Cohan)

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted our first national flag. A flag was needed to show and promote national pride and unity during the War of Independence between the British and the American Colonies.


Natalia Spilmon, a recent Russian immigrant, said sewing this American flag made her feel more connected to her new country.
Photo by Cindy Chew
The American flag remains a symbol of freedom. You can knock us down, but you cannot knock us out. The horrific events on Sept. 11, 2001, have again prompted many Americans to fly the flag as an expression of renewed patriotism and solidarity.

As a result, American flags have been flying off store shelves, and many retailers and e-tailers are sold out. You may even be on a wait list for one. Instead of waiting, sew your own and give "Old Glory" an even greater meaning. With the holidays approaching, a homemade flag can even be an important, unique gift.

Surprisingly, no one knows with absolute certainty who designed and made the first American flag. Common legend credits the construction of the first flag to the talents of Betsy Ross. Ross was a widow running her own struggling upholstery business when General George Washington showed her a rough drawing of the flag that included six-pointed stars. Instead, Ross demonstrated how to cut a five-pointed star in just a single cut.

Impressed by her handy work, George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross, members of the Continental Congress, enlisted Betsy to make our first flag. It included 13 five-pointed stars. The meeting took place in Ross' home in late May 1776. It was declared "that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

Our Stars and Stripes have evolved over the last 250 years. On August 21, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower gave an executive order for the arrangement of 50 stars in nine rows staggered horizontally and 11 rows of stars staggered vertically. Our current, 27th version of the flag became official on July 4, 1960, after Hawaii was admitted to the union.

Jill Slater is the "Good Gardener" for ABC 7 News, San Francisco, and spokesperson for The California Cut Flower Commission.

Sew your own Stars and Stripes:

You don't need to be an expert seamstress to sew your own flag, but Natalia Spilmon who is a professional seamstress generously donated her time to stitch our American flag. Spilmon is a Russian immigrant who has lived in this country for just three years. She said sewing the flag made her feel more connected to her newly acquired American roots.

Time: 12 hours

Cost: $35-40

Materials: Makes 3' x 5' flag approximately

  • 1 3/4 yards 44"-wide red 100% red cotton
  • 2 3/4 yards 44"-wide white 100% cotton
  • 1 yard 44"-wide blue 100% cotton
  • Red, white, blue, invisible thread
  • Two half-inch grommets
  • Fabric chalk and pencil
  • 2" by 2" piece of cardboard
  • Sharp scissors
  • Sewing machine (optional: sewing machine with computerized embroidery feature)
  • Iron

Note: Polyester or flag-weight nylon could also be used to construct flag.

Directions:

Cut the following stripes:

  • 3 white stripes - 63.5" by 4.25"
  • 3 red stripes - 63.5" by 4.25"
  • 4 red stripes - 43" by 4.25"
  • 3 white stripes - 43" by 4.25"
  • 1 white strip - 40" by 8"
  • 1 blue piece 22.5" by 21" (flag's union)
  • 2 white pieces 22.5" by 21" (for stars)

Assembly of stripes:

1. Set up sewing machine with white thread on top and red in bobbin.


After joining the alernating red and white stripes, follow the directions for finishing the flat-felled seams.
Photo by Cindy Chew
2. Starting with a red stripe, join 43" long stripes with 3/4" seam. Make sure a red stripe is the first and seventh stripe, with alternating red and white stripes in between.

3. Set 43" stripes aside. Join 63" long stripes as you did the 43" stripes, but start with a white stripe and end with a red stripe.

4. On top seam of all stripes, trim away white seam allowance, on next seam trim away red and continue alternating until all seams are trimmed.

5. Turn under and iron down wider seam allowances. Sew all red flat-felled seams first (red thread on top, white in bobbin). Then sew all white flat-felled seams; change thread (white on top, red in bobbin).

6. Finish top raw edge of 43"red stripe, and bottom raw edge of 63" stripe, by folding edges under 1/4" then 1/4" again. Sew flat with two rows of stitching to create flat seams.

Sewing five-Point Stars:

1. Sandwich and pin blue 22.5" by 21" piece (this is the union of the flag), between two white 22.5" by 21" pieces.

2. Make a grid for star placement (these are measurements for the center of each star), by first measuring and marking with pencil or fabric chalk, 2" down from top right corner and 2.5" left of where blue union will meet stripes.

3. Now measure and mark centers for six stars in horizontal row, 3.25" apart. (All to the left of the first star.)


Trace the star template (left) onto cardboard, then stitch around the cardboard template to make perfect stars.
Photo by Cindy Chew
4. The next row of stars starts 4" to the left of where blue union will meet stripes and 2" below the first row of stars. Repeat step 3, this time marking centers of just five stars.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 alternately for nine rows of stars.

6. Trace star template on cardboard and cut out.

7. Place center of star template on center of first star. With white thread in top and bobbin, stitch around template. Do this for all 50 stars.

8. Cut away white fabric around stars, being careful not to cut blue union fabric.

9. Zigzag stitch around edges of each star.

10. Finish top edge of union by turning and pressing seam under 1/4" and 1/4" again. Sew two rows of stitching to create flat seam.

*If a computerized embroidery sewing machine is available, embroider stars onto union in pattern stated above.

Attaching union, stripes and grommets:

1. Attach blue union to 43" stripes. Use blue thread for top and bobbin.

2. Trim stripe section of seam allowance. Fold under blue seam allowance and stitch down. Use blue thread on top and invisible thread in bobbin.

3. Join 63.5" long striped section to the blue union and shorter striped section. Create flat-felled seam by trimming white seam allowance. Change machine thread to correspond with colors you are sewing (white bobbin and blue or red top).

4. Hem outer edge of flag by folding and pressing under 1/2" and then 1". Use invisible thread for top and bobbin. Finish with two rows of stitching like all other finished edges.

5. At both 8"-ends of the 40" by 8" white strip, fold and press under 2". Fold the strip in half lengthwise and fold each edge into the middle. Sandwich the raw edge of flag inside folded strip and stitch into place. Place another row of stitching 1/4" inside from the original stitching for extra strength.

6. Attach grommets on the white band at top and bottom. Follow directions on grommet package.

7. Attach flag to flag pole and display your flag proudly.

How to fly your flag correctly

It is the universal custom to display the national flag only from sunrise to sunset. The U.S. flag may be displayed at night, if lit with lights, when a patriotic effect is desired.

Display the U.S. flag on all days that weather permits, but especially on national and state holidays.

Always hoist the U.S. flag briskly, and lower it ceremoniously.

Resources:

Natalia Spilmon
Natalia's Elegant Tailoring
Mountain View (650) 254-1961

Eddie's Quilting Bee
264 Castro St., Mountain View (650) 969-1714

Jo-Ann Fabrics
435 San Antonio Road, Mountain View (650) 948-5300
or
308 Walnut St., Redwood City (650) 369-9488

www.sewing.about.com
"Make Your Own American Flag!"
By Debbie Colgrove