Flags of Hope, 2016

Flags of Hope, 2016

In 2016, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort founds New York Textile Month, a festival and exhibition that repositions textiles, often overlooked as a means to an end, as central to modern design. New York Textile month celebrates these materials that are so deeply woven into our lives, their rich and diverse history, and encourages a dialogue around innovation in sustainable design.  For the inaugural issue of NYTM’s Talking Textiles magazine, Natalie writes an essay entitled “Flags of Hope.”

“Flags of Hope” by Natalie Chanin

Published in Talking Textiles, Issue 1 for New York Textile Month, September, 2016

Acts of sewing and quilting have largely been as practical and utilitarian as they are beautiful and expressive. Women and men, particularly those in rural communities, often made quilts out of necessity and used fabric scraps to do so in a frugal way. Sewing could be solitary and done in the evening after a day’s work, because a family needed a warm blanket for the coming winter; it could be a way to bring extra money into your household; it could also be a joyous celebration of community, as when families and neighbors would join together to make wedding quilts. The act of quilting can paint a picture of the work women will do to sustain their families and to create something beautiful from their own hands. A quilt tells a story about its maker, specific to a time and place; a quilt, quite literally, is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

It is perhaps this appreciation of craft, married with romanticism and patriotic spirit that causes Americans to rally around the story of Betsy Ross and her original rendering of the “Stars and Stripes”. As children, most of us were taught that stories from early American folklore were truths: George Washington’s fabled honesty was demonstrated when he could not tell a lie about chopping down a cherry tree, Wyatt Earp had a famous shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. The history of our first flag is such an essential part of the American pantheon that it seems somewhat unpatriotic to cast any hint of doubt on its origin. And while it’s entirely possible that Ross may have contributed to the design, there is no historical evidence to suggest that she was its sole creator.

The story of Ross and her famous creation first appears about 100 years after the first American flag was sewn, when her grandson William Canby presented a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania claiming that his grandmother had, at the request of General George Washington, “made with her hands the first flag” – a tale that was told to him by his aunt, 30 years after Betsy Ross’ death. Canby’s only evidence came in the form of affidavits from his own family members, none of whom witnessed his grandmother making the flag. In truth, Betsy Ross herself never made an outright claim of having sewn the first flag, though she did profess that she was the person who altered the original design’s six-pointed star to a five-pointed star, because they were easier to sew. 

There were nearly 20 upholsterers and flag makers working in Philadelphia around the time that first flag appeared. Mr. Canby admitted that there were several variations of the flag being made at the same time as the one he attributed to his grandmother. For this reason, it is probable that there was not one single “first” flag, but actually many. It is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to determine who made the first flag of the United States. Today, its design is often associated with Francis Hopkinson, who also had a hand in designing the United States Seal and some forms of American currency. 

No matter what her actual role was in the creation of America’s first flag, the Betsy Ross story is one of skill and perseverance. During the time when she was reportedly making our first official banner, she was a widow and an upholsterer doing all manner of work – including making many types of flags. Those who support her grandson’s claims note that Betsy often spoke of how grateful she was to never want for a source of income. They also point to a rather large sum of money paid to her in May of 1777 by the Pennsylvania State Navy. Regardless, the folklore surrounding Betsy Ross presents a strong patriotic role model for girls and is a prominent representation of women’s contributions to the American Revolution – and American history, in general.

But, the thought that our first flags were embroidered by hand, in the same style as a quilt, gives it a human, personal feel. The first official flag flown during a Revolutionary War battle was made from repurposed materials. Soldiers cut up their shirts to make the white stripes and material for the scarlet stripes came from the dresses and petticoats of the officers’ wives. The blue fabric was actually provided by the coat of one Captain Abraham Swartwout. Most early flags were made from wool, cotton, linen, or silk – or a combination thereof, depending on the materials available. Through trial and error, it was determined that wool bunting held its color the longest and held up longer through wind and rain. 

At Alabama Chanin, we have a version of the American Flag that we have sold since the summer of 2002.  It is a pieced and quilted flag that we sell in two colors—one in the standard red, white, and blue, and one that we make in pure white as a sign of peace and healing. Our representation of the American flag is made by stitching together disparate pieces of fabric to create a beautiful, larger whole. We once received an email, referring us to the United States Flag Code, suggesting that our American Flag Quilt doesn’t adhere strictly to the advisory rules. But the very first American flags that flew were quilts, stitched together with disparate pieces of fabric by the hands of disparate men and women looking to create a better world. 

Flags were made of dyed and undyed fabrics, stitched together by hand, and the stars were appliquéd on at the end using one of several techniques that we still employ at Alabama Chanin today. Double appliqué stars were the most common and were sewn on either side of the blue square (called the “canton”). Less often used were single appliqué stars – where a single piece of fabric is used to make a star that is visible on both sides of the flag. Here, star shapes were cut out of the blue material and a white star was appliquéd over the star-shaped hole; on the reverse side, the cut fabric was flattened and hemmed neatly so the white star was shown through the cutout. This technique, called reverse appliqué, is one of Alabama Chanin’s most frequently used methods of sewing, and one of the techniques that is the basis of our own flag quilt.  And while our quilt may not adhere strictly to the American Flag advisory rules, I want it to be clear that I love my home and our flag—that symbol of home and hope.

Like all quilts, and flags, we take care with every small scrap of fabric, embroidering each stenciled piece so that when inspected up close, you can see the detail involved; each small piece painted with a different stencil pattern; each small piece stitched using a different technique including quilting, appliqué, and reverse appliqué; each technique modified to highlight the possible variations and nuances of color; all these disparate pieces somehow fitting together to tell a larger story—much like our country.

Learn more about New York Textile Month and follow along @newyorktextilemonth.

Shop Talking Textiles, Issue 1 here.


Slide 1: “Inspired By” quilt by Beth Shibley, 2014, contributed by the Quilt Alliance, with accompanying essay “Flags of Hope” by Natalie Chanin, published in Talking Textiles, Issue 1 for New York Textile Month, September 2016, photograph by Robert Rausch