Understanding the fabrics and sewing
techniques used to make American
flags is an essential part of
identifying and evaluating antique
American flags. New
collectors, and even experienced
collectors, may have difficulty
differentiating between different
fabrics, especially if they are
blended. Forensic examination
of flags, to the level of examining
the fibers of the fabrics
themselves, and the threads used to
sew the flags, helps identify the
period of the materials used and
usually is a good indicator of the
period of a flag (though not
necessarily, in the case of a
Wool is an animal fiber produced
from spinning the hair of sheep.
As a protein-based fiber, wool that
is burned exudes the smell of
burning hair. Wool flags
generally feel coarse and the weave
of wool fabric is generally looser
than cotton or linen, and certainly
looser than silk. Wool is
chosen for flags because of its
excellent ability to withstand
water. Since it is a product
of natural animal hair, it doesn't
rot as readily as vegetable fibers
like cotton or linen. Wool
over 200 years old can still be
vibrant and supple. Moths do
tend to feed on wool, and many holes
in wool flags are due to mothing,
especially with flags that are
stored for years in attics, barns,
garages and basements.
When examined very closely, the
earliest wool flags, which date to
the 18th and early 19th century,
made of wool bunting that is very
loosely and irregularly woven.
This pre-industrial era wool is
distinct and a good indicator of
whether or not a flag with a low
star count is in fact a possible
authentic period example rather than
a later-period flag. Shown
here are close up images of wool
bunting from flags of various eras,
from the early 19th century through
the 20th century. Note how in
the earliest flag, the weave is very
irregular, whereas in the wool
bunting produced by machine in the
mid- to late 19th century, and into
the 20th century, the weave becomes
very consistent and regular.
(For more information see
Wool Bunting, circa 1816.
This wool bunting from the
19 star American flag (later
update to 25 stars), shows
the irregular weave in the
wool of an early 19th
century flag. Click
here for more
information about this flag.
Wool Bunting, circa 1851.
This wool bunting from a
period 31 star flag is a
more consistent weave,
though areas of irregularity
are visible. Note the
chain stitching present in
the flag, produced by very
early sewing machines.
Wool Bunting, circa 1876.
By the Civil War and
Centennial era, wool bunting
becomes even more regular.
Visually, one is able to
trace long lengths of the
spun wool fibers within the
Wool Bunting, circa 1944.
This wool bunting is from an
official U.S. Navy Ensign,
Mare Island No. 12.
The weave is extremely tight
Cotton is a vegetable fiber produced
from the boll that grows around the
seeds within the seed pod of cotton
plants. The fiber is spun into
cotton yarn or cotton thread, and
woven to produce cotton cloth.
There are very early examples of
cotton American flags, including
those that predate the Civil War.
Cotton was widely available as a
household fabric, and was especially
more prevalent for home use than
animal materials such as wool
bunting or silk. For many
homemade American flags, cotton was
the fabric of choice. When
wet, cotton is heavier than wool and
tends to become brittle and
deteriorate. Cotton stored in
hot or moist climates can also
experience dry rotting. On
most wool flags, cotton is typically
the fabric of choice for sewn stars,
owing to cotton's brighter
coloration and tighter weave.
(For more information, see
Cotton, circa 1845.
The cotton fabric in this
hand-sewn 27 star flag,
circa 1845, shows a loose
irregular weave. In
the images of the whole
flag, one can see the
striations caused by
variations in the density of
the weave and irregularities
in the vegetable dyes used
to color the fabric.
Cotton, circa 1861.
This cotton fabric is of a
fine quality for the period,
and is well dyed. This
hand sewn flag remains in an
extraordinary state of
evidence, such as the water
marks visible in the image,
of being used outdoors.
Cotton, circa 1876.
Cotton from the Centennial
era in this 38 star flag,
homemade in Lebanon, Indiana
for the 4th of July, 1876,
shows vibrant red, bright
white and cornflower blue
coloration. Note the
extremely fine machine
stitching, which measures at
19 to 20 stitches per inch.
Linen is a vegetable fiber made from
the fiber of the flax plant.
Linen textiles are some of the
oldest in the world.
Homespun linen is a staple fabric.
Though much less common than cotton
today, linen fabric produced in
early America was valued for its durability (linen is 2 to 3
times stronger than cotton) and, as
an excellent conductor of heat, its
coolness in warm weather. (For more
of the best case studies for the use
of linen in an early American flag
is the 19 Star flag in this
collection, as described below.
The original 19 stars of the flag
are made of identical homespun linen
as the stripes of the flag.
The two sets of added stars, which
brought the total number of stars to
25, are clearly sewn by a different
hand, but more importantly, are of a
less tight, lower quality linen
weave. This is solid evidence
that when originally produced, the
flag consisted of 19 stars, which
were later updated. Note also
how the linen, unlike cotton, has an
almost pearl-like appearance under
up of an original star and its
adjacent white stripe. Note
the identical weave of the linen
fabric. Also note the loose,
irregular wool bunting, consistent
with early 19th century wool fabric.
Silk is a natural protein fiber
obtained most commonly from the
cocoon of the larvae of the mulberry
silkworm. One of the most
luxurious and expensive of all
fabrics, the use of silk in American
flags is typically reserved for the
finest quality flags, most often for
military or official use.
Several qualities of silk make it an
exceptionally good fabric for use in
flags. The material is
light-weight, exceptionally strong,
tightly woven and weathers well.
Its shimmering appearance is
beautiful and impressive. For
military standards, silk allows for
large flags that are light and which
dry quickly. The fineness of
the material allows for the
application of painted decorations,
as is often seen in the painted
stars and decorative cantons of
flags produced for wartime use,
especially those of the American
unfortunate problem with antique
silk flags is that large numbers of
them, including many Civil War era
battle standards, were made of
"weighted silk". Sold for
centuries by length, merchants
shifted from selling silk by length
to selling it by weight, beginning
in the early 19th century (circa
1820-1830). In order to earn
more money for their silk, merchants
frequently soaked the silk in water
laden with mineral salts. Once
dried, the mineral salts remained in
the silk fibers and added weight to
the silk, thus bringing the merchant
more money. Unfortunately,
these mineral salts proved to be
caustic and caused severe breakdown
in the silk fibers over time.
Many flags made of weighted silk are
very brittle, often deteriorating
under their own weight. Yet
flags made of unweighted silk, some
of which are decades older than
later weighted silk flags, remain in
a remarkable state of preservation.
Beyond the basic fabrics of wool,
cotton, silk and linen most commonly
used on antique flags, flags exist
that are sometimes made of blended
fabric such as wool-silk blends.
Although certain weaves, such as
bunting weaves for wool, are most
common, homemade flags that are made
from materials at hand sometimes use
fabric intended for other purposes
such as blankets, clothing, drapery
or upholstery. These
variations add charm and uniqueness
to the flags. Flags with fabrics in
printed patterns such as calico or
stripes are also unusual and rarely
encountered, thus adding to their
appeal with collectors.
Wool Blend, circa 1863.
The canton of this homemade
Civil War era flag of 35
to be made of blanket wool,
perhaps a blend of wool and