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  • February 09, 2020 9 min read

    Ever wonder what the best flag material is? 


    Three images of American Flag with embroidered stars

     

    Come to think of it, what fabrics are used to make a flag?


    There are many factors that contribute to a flag’s overall look, feel, performance, and durability. (Not to mention price.)

    Construction plays a major role in overall flag quality, but today we will focus solely on the heart of a flag, its material

    No two flags are alike. Each flag has a personality in the way it appears and moves. So what part does fabric play?

    Most cloth flags are made of nylon, polyester, or cotton. (Historically, other flag materials included silk, wool, and linen.) Each of these fabrics has its own characteristics, varying in thickness, weave, and weight. And every material was designed for a specific use.

    Does a wool flag sounds unusual?

    We spotted this ad in the family copy of the 1902 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog.

    Wool American Flag Advertised in Sears catalog from 1902

     

    The Challenge: To choose the best flag material, you must consider the environment where the flag will be displayed and the performance you want.

     

    An indoor flag will be displayed and viewed up close. In this case you may want a classic, soft, rich, vibrant fabric.On the other hand, maybe your flag will fly behind a boat exposed to extreme conditions: high wind and salt water.

    Outdoor flags serve in harm's way. There are many factors at work on an outdoor flag that you may not have considered.

     

    Conditions That May Effect an Outdoor Flag

    high wind low wind temperature rain heat cold
    snow ice sun (UV rays) salt water chemicals pollution
    insects birds mold mildew neglect humidity

    Before we get ahead of ourselves...

    Two Types of Flag

    Printed Flags are usually one piece of material printed on one or both sides. They tend to be made of thin, lightweight fabric and are most often the cheapest option.

    Printed flags are thin, flat and one dimensional. The type of ink and method of printing will factor into the vibrance and longevity of printed flags.

    White flag that says Your Logo here

    Fully Sewn Flags, on the other hand, are made of many pieces of fabric assembled and stitched together. (That’s why construction, i.e. lock stitching vs. chain stitching is so important).

    Close up of American Flag with sewn stripes and embroidered stars


    Added labor and time makes sewn flags more expensive. And since a quality flag is a bigger investment it is helpful to understand how different fabrics perform.

     For sake of example, let's consider a fully sewn and embroidered American flag.

    A sewn American flag is assembled from several pieces. The material parts consist of the heading (header), the canton (or star field), the stars, and stripes. (Here is guide to understanding the parts of the American flag.)

    The heading is the side piece that is used for attachment. (Attachment methods may vary. For example are grommets, thimble, or pole hem.) Most often the header is made of a heavy duty duck cloth blend that feels like canvas.

    The header bears the load when flying, so strength is the issue here, but most manufacturers use similar material and it is not a significant issue in flag choice.

    What distinguishes a flag is the material used for the field, or stripes, stars, and background.

    So let’s explore each fabric choice and what they have to offer.

    Nylon 

    Nylon (6,6) is a synthetic polymer that can be melt-processed into fiber. It was the first introduced by DuPont in the 1930s to great success. The first commercial use was for bristles on a toothbrush. Later, nylon became a revolutionary solution for women's stockings. Hence the term nylons. They were so popular it eventually led to the nylon riots.

    Anyway, because it is strong and lightweight, during World War II, it was discovered that nylon was well-suited for use in parachutes and para-cord. This opened up many new applications for the synthetic fiber. Today, nylon is used in clothes, tents, seat belts, tarps, rope, nets, flags, etc.

    Why Nylon is the Most Popular Flag Material

    Nylon can be manufactured in many forms. When woven and blended with other fabrics it has many properties that make it hard to beat when it comes to flag material.

    Properties and Characteristics of Nylon

    graphic depicting pros and cons of nylon fabric

    As we mentioned before the most important factor in choosing the best flag material is to match the fabric to the intended use. All of the above characteristics make nylon an ideal fabric for outdoor flags. 

    Benefits of a Nylon Flag

     Attribute Benefit
    lightweight flies in a slight breeze
    strength and elasticity holds up to high winds
    fast drying/low water absorption no mold
    heat and cold resistant all weather/any climate
    easily dyed vibrant color that won't fade
    tough and difficult to tear durability
    inexpensive value for the money
    easy to wash adds longevity
    UV resistant won't fade in the sun
    acceptable outdoor flag meets U.S. Flag Code

     

    According to the US Flag Code Title 4 Chapter 1:

    §6. Time and occasions for display

    (a) It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24  hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.

    (c) The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed

    These days, many flags are flying 24/7 in all kinds of weather. If that's the case you can't go wrong with a well made nylon flag.

     

    Polyester 

    Polyester is a synthetic (petroleum based) material. Made from various polymers, it is a material type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Discovered while continuing the project that led to nylon, polyester was patented in 1941.

    Polyesters include naturally occurring chemicals (derived from plants) as well as synthetic chemicals. While natural polys are biodegradable, most synthetic polyesters are not biodegradable. It takes more than 200 years to decompose.

    Basically, polyester is plastic.

    Like nylon, polyester is melt-spun. This process allows the fibers to be made in different shapes and sizes for specific applications. 

      

    Properties and Characteristics of Polyester

    pro con graphic about polyester fabric

    Polyester In Flags

    Polyester has many qualities that are great for flags. It can also be blended with natural fibers to get the benefits of both.

    One common application is 2-ply poly in an open weaveAn open weave allows air to pass through, which reduces friction and lowers fabric stress. Increasing durability and longevity for a flag.

    For this reason, Poly is a good choice for large flagscommercial use and ideal for high wind situations.

    Poly flags are the most durable outdoor flag in most conditions. But durability comes at a cost. Poly flags are also the most expensive.

     

     Cotton

    The third option is cotton. Cotton grows naturally in the form of bolls on cotton plants. The fiber is spun into yarn or thread and used to make soft, breathable textiles. Cotton has been used to make fabric for 1000s of years.

    Before synthetic fibers, most flags were made of cotton.

     

    Properties and Characteristics of Cotton

    Pro con graphic for cotton fabric

    The Majesty of Cotton Flags

    Nylon and poly offer advantages for outdoor flags. That is undeniable. Both are more durable, last longer, and easier to maintain than cotton.

    That aside, a cotton flag has a certain elegance that is undeniable. It is a sentimental favorite among purists.

    Both nylon and poly can be made in different sheen or luster. Cotton maintains a low luster which has a natural softness. It also possesses the most natural draping quality which makes it most suitable for indoor display.

     

    Ceremonial Flag Fabric

    Ceremonies deserve and command a level of respect. They're also usually a single event and do not require durability. That's makes fabric choice easy.

    We recommend cotton for ceremonial flag fabric

    It is common after burial service to present the survivors with the casket flag. It will be folded and often displayed to honor the loss. 

    For close display and handling cotton is the sentimental favorite.

     

     

    Material Terms and Description

    Manufacturers use technical terms to describe the qualities of fabric.

    DENIER

    One term that is often used regarding nylon is denier. Denier (D) is a textile unit of measurement. Without getting too technical, it is a way of comparing a fiber's linear mass, or weight.

    Put simply, denier is the weight in grams of 9000 meters of a fiber. The unit is based on silk. Silk is 1 denier which means 9000 meters of a single strand of silk weighs 1 gram.

    Most nylon used in flags is around 200 D. This is a good balance of strength for durability and still lightweight enough for flyability.

    OXFORD CLOTH

    Oxford cloth is not unique to the textile. It is a process that can be used  with cotton, or a synthetic blend. Two fine filaments are woven together to produce a basket weave pattern.

    The result is added strength and a fabric that breathes, allowing air to pass through. It is said to have a silklike lustrous appearance. 

    Oxford cloth close up

    2-PLY

    2-Ply is a term often used to describe polyester. "Ply" refers to the number of yarns woven together to make a single thread. When a thread is made of two pieces it adds strength when woven into a textile.

     

    Material Content Must Be Labeled on a Flag

    U.S. Textile and Wool Acts

    The US Textile and Wool Act requires that flags with a heading or that are bigger than 216 square inches (12”x18”) must be labeled to show:

    • Country of origin
    • Manufacturer name or RN number
    • Material Content

     

    The Flag Manufacturers Association of America FMAA is dedicated to certifying that American flags adhere to the US Textile and Wool Act and are Made in the USA. We are proud members of the FMAA. When you choose your flag, look for certification.

    FMAA certification logo

     Conclusion

    Material is an important consideration in choosing a flag.

    The American flag is a living symbol and the fabric is the very soul. The look, feel, movement, and longevity all come from the material.

    There are many good options covering a wide range of uses. To make the best choice, you must match fabric to use. Consider the environment and what you'd like your flag to represent.

    If you are choosing an outdoor flag, what is your climate? How severe is the weather? Do you plan on flying your flag daily? 24/7? Or will you preserve the flag only flying in fair weather, special occasions, and holidays.

    We put together the chart below to help make your decision. 

    Flag Material Comparison Chart

    American flag nylon vs. polyester vs. cotton

     

    Ultimately, it is a personal choice. 

    FAQs

    What is the  most durable flag material?

    Historically, flags have been made out of wool, silk, and cotton. With the invention of synthetic fibers, most outdoor flags are now made out of nylon or polyester. Each material has its advantages. Polyester is generally the most durable, the heaviest, and also most expensive. Nylon is the next most durable and also well suited for outdoor conditions. In some applications nylon may perform better than polyester and costs considerably less, making nylon the most popular flag material. Cotton is a natural fiber that looks soft and rich, but will not be as durable as synthetic materials in outdoor weather.

    What is the best flag material?

    In order to choose the best flag material it is wise to consider the conditions and desired performance. Cotton, nylon, and pol are the most common flag materials today. Cotton is natural, soft, and shows rich true colors. Cotton works well for traditional ceremony, indoor display. It is not as durable in wet conditions as nylon and poly. Nylon is strong, flies well, fade resistant, and resists mildew. These benefits make nylon the most popular choice for outdoor residential use. Polyester is also very durable. It is heavier and more expensive making it a popular choice for large flags and commercial applications.

    Is nylon or poly a better flag material?

    The short answer is that both nylon and poly are good choices for outdoor flag material. They perform a little differently. Poly is more durable in overall and more expensive. It is a good choice for high winds, large flags and commercial use. Nylon is more economical, almost as durable, and the most popular choice for every day residential use.

    What fabric should I choose for a flag?

    The most common flag materials are nylon, poly, and cotton. There are many good options covering a wide range of uses. To make the best choice, you must match fabric to use. Consider the environment and what you'd like your flag to represent. 

    What material are flags made of?

    Most cloth flags are made of nylon, polyester, or cotton. (Historically, other flag materials included silk, wool, and linen.) Each of these fabrics has its own characteristics, varying in thickness, weave, and weight. And every material was designed for a specific use.

    When should a flag be replaced?

    According to the US Flag Code Title 4 Chapter 1:

    §8. Respect for flag

    (k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.

    Is cotton a good material for outdoor flags?

    Cotton has many great qualities as a flag material. It is a natural fiber, has a soft feel and rich color. A cotton flag can be used outdoors, but the elements (wind, rain, sun, chemicals, etc.) will break down cotton faster than synthetic fibers. 

     

    Thanks for your interest.

    THE END

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