American Flag - Understanding the Parts of the US Flag

February 27, 2020

Hand drawn sketch in color of US Flag


Specific terms are used to describe parts of the US flag.

Some terms refer to the physical pieces used to assemble the flag, and some terms refer to the elements of the flag, identifying their position and location regarding flag design. 

And not every flag is created equally. The flag of the USA can be configured differently for unique applications.  


Basic Parts of the American Flag 


Parts of the American Flag illustration


Header (or heading) - The header is a band of material placed on the pole side (hoist) of the flag, it serves to secure the flag to the halyard line. The header is usually made of a thick cotton/poly blend that feels like canvas.

Grommet - A metal ring or eyelet embedded in the header. These are usually made of brass and used to secure an outdoor flag.

Canton - Technically the canton can be any quarter of the flag. In modern flag design it usually refers to the top left corner (upper hoist), which is the position of honor. The canton of the US flag is also called the Union - the blue background where the 50 stars are sewn or appliqued.

Field - the background or predominant color of the flag

Fly End - The fly end is the edge of the flag furthest away from the pole. The term fly is used to describe the length of the flag, and the fly end is the side that is not secured. By nature, it "flies" freely and endures the most stress or whip.



Position Terms Used to Describe the American Flag 


Flag design terms


Hoist - The term hoist is used to refer to the half (and edge) closest to where the flag is hung. It also refers to the distance from top to bottom of the flag. This is confusing since it is a vertical measurement, but describes the flag's width.

Upper Hoist - Imagine the flag is broken into four quadrants and each quadrant is named for the edges it borders, the upper hoist is the upper left corner.

Lower Hoist - lower left quadrant of the flag, nearest to the flag pole

Fly - The term fly is used to describe the half and edge of the flag that is furthest away from the pole. It can also be used to describe the length (horizontal measurement) of the flag.

Upper Fly - the top quarter of the flag furthest away from the pole

Lower Fly - bottom right quadrant of the flag

Fly End- The fly end is the edge of the flag that is furthest away from the pole - the end that "flies" freely.

Position of Honor - The position of honor is generally the upper hoist. This is also commonly referred to as the canton. Many colony flags use this area to honor their ruling country. Australia is now independent but the flag of Australia 🇦🇺is a good example.



Banner Style American Flag

US Flags with a pole hem are sometimes called banners. Instead of grommets and a header they are designed so that a sleeve slides over the pole.

These are often used with indoor pole sets, porch flags and parade display.


Pole Hem flag illustration with parts


Pole Hem -The term pole hem refers to a sheath on the hoist side used to fit over a pole. In order to create the sleeve, either the main flag material is extended or additional material is added.

When the flag material is extended the colors of the stripes and canton continue and the flag appears to be elongated. If extra material is added it is usually white and looks like a traditional header.

Sleeve - The sleeve is the opening (sheath) on the pole side of the flag that slides over a pole.

Tab - A button-hole will be sewn into the sleeve. It is usually leather and can be found at the top, just inside the sleeve. This tab is used to secure the flag to the pole.

Banner - An American flag with a pole sleeve is often referred to as a banner. The term "banner" is used broadly and includes flags in general, so often the terms are interchangeable. But, historically, a banner is stretched between two points and often has text. 



Rope and Thimble Heading 

Large flags require more support in the header. The extra weight could cause the header to tear off the flag, so the solution is a rope and thimble. This type of attachment also allows a bigger flag to fly better.


US Flag with rope and thimble headerGlossary

Thimble - The thimble is a horse-shoe shaped steel piece with a channel. This is designed to hold a rope. The thimbles are usually made of galvanized steel for strength, durability, and to avoid rust.

Rope - Nylon rope that runs through the header and around each thimble.

Size - Rope and thimble riggings are usually reserved for flags that are 8' x 12' and above. Smaller flags don't require as much support and can be flown with a traditional header and grommets set up.


   American Flag Design - What do the Stars, Stripes, and Colors Symbolize?  


While we are examining the parts of the US flag - here is a brief explanation of what each part of the flag means.

The flag of the USA has a few nicknames. Sometimes referred to as Old Glory, The Stars and Stripes or The Star Spangled Banner. Over the years there have been many variations. As states have been added to the Union, the flag has evolved. Learn the history of the American Flag.

The original Flag Act of 1777 made no provision for the position of the stars and stripes, which meant it was left up to the imagination of the flag maker.

This freedom produced flags in all shapes, sizes, and combinations. Here is an example from 1845.


American Flag stars in a star shape circa 1835


This was finally changed in 1912 when President William Howard Taft signed an executive order declaring an official flag designThe current version (50 stars) became official on July 4,1960 and is the longest running American flag design.


So let's take a look.


American Flag Colors

Specifically, the colors are "White", "Old Glory Red", and "Old Glory Blue". Based on color a card published by the JOSA, the colors are specified in terms of fabric.

In order to use official flag colors for screen or print the State Department recommends the following translation.

American Flag Pantone Color Swatch


Contrary to popular myth, the colors of the flag were not chosen for any specific meaning. They were simply inherited from the flag of Great Britain. (King's Colours)

Later, when the seal of the United States was designed, the colors (red, white, and blue) were reused for consistency and specific meanings were assigned.

Reporting to Congress, Charles Thompson (Secretary), described the new Seal as follows:

"The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice."

Great Seal of the United States

For this reason, it is common to attribute the same meanings from the Seal to the colors of the American flag.



In 1986, president Ronald Reagan interpreted the colors this way:

"The colors of our flag signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish. Red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice."



American Flag - Official Dimensions and Ratios Explained

Official US flag dimensions are spelled out in the US Code. Title 4, Chapter 1, is called The Flag, and is commonly referred to as the US Flag Code.

One important note. The "official" dimensions apply to the executive branch of Government and are required for flags that are displayed in specific government areas. Flags that adhere to these dimensions are considered G-Spec or Government Specified.

For the general public, it is more common and popular to fly the American flag in sizes of 12x18", 2'x3', 2.5"x4', 3'x5', 4'x6', and 5'x8'.

If you take a closer look, you will notice when the flag is in G-Spec ratio:

Official US Flag dimensions from the US flag code

Flag part ratio dimension chart

Flag size ratio chart


US Flag Design - What Do the Stars and Stripes Represent? 

We have already dissected the flag into parts, now it's time to explain the meaning behind each symbol. 

From the US Flag Code: Section1

The flag of the United States shall have thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white, and a union consisting of white stars on a field of blue 


Thirteen Stripes

The 13 Stripes on the American flag represent the 13 original colonies/states of Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.

There are 7 red stripes alternating with 6 white stripes - red on top and bottom. The stripes are of equal width and run horizontally.

Francis Hopkins is given credit for the first United States flag design.

Original US Flag design by Francis Hopkins

Legend has it that Hopkins actually designed two flags, one for the Navy and one for the U.S. government. The only difference between the two flags was the order of the stripes. The naval flag started with a red stripe and the government started with a white stripe on top.

Some speculate that red eventually took its place on top and bottom for practical reasons, white would show more wear and tear.


Fifty Stars

The 50 white stars of the flag represent each of the 50 states in the United States.

Originally, the stars were to signify a "new constellation". As the number of stars changed with the addition of new states, so did the arrangement of stars on the flag.

The current arrangement is 9 rows. The rows are slightly offset, alternating 6 stars in a row on  top and bottom with 5 star rows between. Each star should be aligned with a single point on top. 

In 1958, Robert Heft was a high school student. The stars of Hawaii and Alaska were being added to the flag and new design submissions were being accepted.

Heft submitted his design as a class assignment. His teacher, Stanley Pratt, gave him a B- for the design, saying "it lacked imagination".

The two made a deal that if the design was accepted by Congress, Taft would change the grade to an A. Heft's design was chosen by Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower from over 1500 submissions, and the rest is history.


When the time comes, Heft has a design for an American Flag with 51 stars.

American Flag with 51 Stars


Significance of the Five-Pointed Star

5-pointed star


Before it was introduced in the design of the United States Flag, the five-pointed star was rarely used in Heraldry.

Heraldry is the study, design, and display of armorial bearings. Flags often take their design from military influence and heraldic devices. In the 18th Century, it was much more common to use a six-pointed star.  

Francis Hopkins' original designs did include six-pointed stars. And since the Flag Act of 1777 was so vague, flag makers were free to interpret the Stars and Stripes design and arrangement.

Which leads us to the myth and legend of Betsy Ross

In 1776, Colonel George Washington, George Ross (Betsy's great uncle), and Robert Morris, approached an upholsterer named Betsy Ross to commission a flag.

The delegation presented a design with 6-pointed stars. (Supposedly, they preferred 5-pointed stars, but thought it would be difficult to mass produce.)

According to legend, Betsy Ross presented an easy way to make a five-pointed star with just one scissor cut and the new design was born.

Ross is also attributed with placing the13 stars in a circle.

Betsy Ross Flag

This is where fact and myth get murky. No evidence comes directly from anyone involved and there was no documentation of those events until nearly 100 years later.

Also, the oldest representation of the "Betsy Ross" flag is from 1792, in a painting by John Trumbull

While the complete design is in question, it is likely that Betsy Ross deserves credit for the the 5-pointed star modification. Five-pointed stars are now more commonly used in flags and in Western culture have become synonymous with fame or "stardom".