Flag-making tradition still alive in Philadelphia

Tucked away in a room at a military supply operation, a dozen seamstresses are responsible for hand-embroidering the U.S. presidential flags.

FILE - The presidential flag hangs behind Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Move over, Betsy Ross. There's a new generation of flag makers in Philadelphia.

Tucked away in a room at a military supply operation, a dozen seamstresses are responsible for hand-embroidering the U.S. presidential flags.

The dark blue standard, emblazoned with an eagle encircled in stars, denotes the presence of the nation's leader. It is often seen near the American flag during presidential speeches and other public appearances.

A quiet sewing room at the Defense Logistics Agency is about 10 miles from the house where Betsy Ross is believed to have sewn the first U.S. flag, and is the only place the banners are made.

Thursday is Flag Day, marking the date in 1777 when Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes.

"I think Betsy would be pretty impressed that what she started has evolved into this 200-some years later," heraldics supervisor Lisa Marie Vivino said.

The supply shop, which also provides the military with equipment, clothing and food, has been producing flags since the 1850s. Production today includes brigade and battalion flags for the armed services, as well as ROTC standards for colleges and high schools — although that job is aided by sewing machines.

Of all the flags, the presidential flag is their "pride and joy," Vivino said. It takes two people, stitching in tandem, about 45 days to finish each one.

It starts with the flag pattern being carefully traced in white pencil onto blue fabric. Then a pair of workers, on opposite sides of a small table, use more than a dozen colors of thread to enliven the image — its shield, an eagle clutching 13 arrows and an olive branch, a circle of 50 stars. The hand-embroidered flag will look the same on both sides.

The colors and shape of the eagle have evolved since the first presidential flag. But the current design has been used by every president since World War II, even though each had the prerogative to change it, Vivino said.

The needle workers meticulously hand make vice presidential flags, too. Those standards have a similar image but on a white background with fewer stars. Edged in basic blue fringe, it takes 30 to 35 days to make them. The presidential flag uses hand-knotted gold and silver fringe, with real gold and silver in the thread, Vivino said.

The busiest times for the seamstresses are just after elections when a new president puts in an order. The Obama administration ordered more than 90, which took about two years to fill, Vivino said.

The standards may be kept in various rooms or sites the president frequents. Presidents also travel with the flags for appearances outside the Beltway; some are given as gifts, Vivino noted.

Today, the women who painstakingly craft each presidential banner say they feel a surge of pride when they see their handiwork displayed on TV behind the nation's most powerful person.

"But I wonder if the president knows where these flags are coming from," seamstress Nereida Rivera said. "I would love to see the president come over here to see us."

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Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson
Associated Press
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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