It’s a good thing I get a lot of help and supervision. And that my supervisor, Monty, knows clean paws are important in any undertaking. He has a window seat just to the right of my desk, and here he is preparing himself to lounge while providing close oversight of my work. We've spent many hours in this configuration: the sewing isn't fast, but it isn't really slow, either. It's just...there.
I don't know if 18th century seamstresses and stitchers let their minds wander; you can't wander too much, or you will make a mistake. But it is meditative work-- at least until you reach a change in stage.
After the diagonal quarters are stitched and pressed-- the blue triangles with white diagonals-- the next step is to attach the white bars that outline these rectangles. This is when it really starts to look like a flag!
Once the bars are attached, they’re trimmed even with the blue and white block. Then it’s time to attach the red bars. With each step, and each new addition to the construction, I took the time to check how the components fit together. I also pressed each seam after it was sewn the first time, and again after it was felled. The loose weave of the bunting will pull as you sew, as the thicker linen thread tugs against the fuzzy wool fibers. I’ve found that since I sew right to left, it helps to tug the thread from left to right as I finish a run of stitches.
The stitching itself is pretty simple: the entire flag is constructed using running stitches, and only running stitches. It’s a fast, simple stitch that does well enough to hold the fabric together, looks neat and even, and creates attractive patterns in the felled/Frenched seams.
It’s really important to press as you go. That’s true for all sewing projects, but even more so for precision projects. While this flag is large enough to allow for some wiggle room, it needs to go together in order, and make a balanced, pleasing spectacle when it’s finished.
Even though I share the workroom with a collection of historic costumes and various accessories, I have the room for a Hot Steam gravity-fed iron. At 4.5 pounds, it's a match for the bounciest, most obstreperous fabric. Bunting can be just that fabric. Each of these three colors-- the white, the blue, and the red-- have their own levels of springiness, with the white being both the fuzziest and the springiest. Pressing makes a big difference in terms of matching edges and smoothing the work.
I decided to start with the most manageable (smallest) part of this project first: the canton. Remember that this is a small union jack, and is itself comprised of four sections joined by horizontal and vertical bands. In the Tecumseh flag at the NMAI (above), the horizontal red bar is continuous. In this flag, it will be the vertical bar (see image at left).
For all that I put the pieces into Illustrator and move them around, I still find hand drawing important to really understanding a piece and the process I need to make it. Thankfully, the Museum’s Gallery Interpretation Manager, who is overseeing this project, had a diagram and explanation to help me understand and construct the four blue-and-white sections of the canton.
To start, I had to decide where to place the blue triangle on what will be the white diagonal, calculating for the seam allowance and the trimming required to square up the pieces. It wasn’t all that hard, considering the seam allowances and the generous cut that put the finished piece measurement down the center of the large white rectangle. (Also, three cheers for not being cut on the bias!)
From the initial layout to the finished stitching took about four days working around my day job schedule. There's no good way for me to calculate how long this would have taken in the 18th century, or how long it's really taking me. I'm not recording my hours, and I'm not sewing every day. The point of the exercise (aside from making an enormous flag) is the assembly process.
After I unpacked all of the pre- cut pieces of bunting, I separated the canton pieces and laid them out on the living floor. But perhaps an orientation is in order, though, to the pieces I’ll be assembling. Wikipedia provides a handy diagram, though of a far fancier flag.
In this case, the canton comprises the ca. 1707 Union Jack, that is, the Cross of St. Andrew and the Cross of St. George. The field will be red, as this is for a ship operating outside of British home waters. (See previous post for detail)
The (thankfully) pre-cut pieces are all cut with a 1” seam allowance, larger than the ½” finished seams will be. This margin of error takes into account the bunting's extreme willingness to unweave itself at every opportunity and the difficulty of cutting very large pieces of fabric. (I am really grateful I didn’t have to cut all of these -- there are many flags being made-- and can only imagine the hand cramps!) But to the business at hand: I had to guess a little bit, since there isn't a construction manual. It looks a fright, I know: all those overlapping bits! The disorganization! If you like things just so, as I do, this project needs some corralling.
To get a better handle on a project too large for my table or floor, I made a list and measured each piece so that I could put them all into Illustrator and move them around more easily. I realize this is a luxury lots of people don’t have, but it’s really just a fancy, digital way of putting together what would be scaled-down pieces of paper in an earlier age.
It may not come as a surprise that in the process of doing the actual sewing, tweaks had to be made. What’s the rule?
Check drawings against field conditions!
The Museum of the American Revolution asked me to be part of their True Colours Flag Project and I readily agreed, happy to build on the research I’d done for the Flowers’ Artificers program a couple of years ago. I opted to do the British Ensign, since I’d looked at an original early 19th century version at the National Museum of the American Indian. Making this full-size, hand-sewn ensign for a museum is a challenge. From the careful marking of seam allowances to steam slightly puckered seams to getting the layout just right, this project keeps me thinking.
The ensign we'll be stitching is figure 5 in the plate at left. The first question you might have is, why does this flag look the way it does? Why is there a Union Jack (that doesn’t look like a Union Jack) on a red field? Shouldn’t it be blue, like Tecumseh’s flag? Or just a Union Jack? Happily, the Museum supplied documentation.
From William Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1769):
Ensign: “a large standard, or banner, hoisted on a long pole erected over the poop, and called the ensign-staff. The ensign is used to distinguish the ships of different nations from each other, as also to characterise the different squadrons of the navy. The British ensign in ships of war is known by a double cross, viz. that of St. George and St. Andrew, formed into an union, upon a field which is either red, white, or blue.”
In that definition, we have the double cross, St. George (the red vertical/horizontal cross) and St. Andrew (the white diagonal cross) that form the core components of the canton of the British ensign I’m making. The red field was seen as early as 1707, and the layered crosses were the standard from the union flag of 1606 and 1707. This red-fielded British ensign flag was for use outside home waters, which did not include the North American colonies. (This attitude-- that the American colonies were not “home,” and its inhabitants were not “British,” was part of what fueled the Revolution.)
The image at left, from 1781, provides a good overview of the range of flags seen in the latter years of the American Revolution. The one I'm making is visible in the second row, fourth from the left (enlarge the image on the Brown site).
Satisfied that I had enough of an understanding to start making, I unpacked the box.