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.