A small workshop on a military base in Northeast Philadelphia exclusively manufactures presidential and vice-presidential flags. The tradition has lasted for over 150 years.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The next time you watch the president give a speech on television, look closely at the flag behind him, the one bearing the presidential seal. You know, an eagle holds an olive branch in one claw and arrows in the other. Somewhere on that flag is a name, the name of the person who spent months hand embroidering this work of art here in a room in Northeast Philadelphia.
NANCY CHHIM: It means the world to me. It’s the world.
SHAPIRO: Someone like Nancy Chhim.
CHHIM: It made me so proud to be here, to work for – especially to make the president’s flag.
SHAPIRO: When she came to the United States from Cambodia 30 years ago, she didn’t speak English. Thirteen people perform this complex work in the Defense Logistics Agency’s Troop Support Flag Room – almost all women and mostly immigrants. Their workshop is in a low building on a military base with jet planes parked at the entrance.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIRE NOISE)
SHAPIRO: Dung Lam works on an eagle’s tail feather, sewing tiny diagonal lines of white and gray thread. She learned to sew as a child in Vietnam.
How long does it take you to sew a single feather?
DUNG LAM: It’s been about a day and a half.
SHAPIRO: A day and a half for this one feather.
It can take six months to complete an entire flag. And it’s extremely competitive to land a job here. People wait years for a position to open up when someone retires.
ADAM WALSTRUM: This is the only team in the world that makes presidential flags for the White House.
SHAPIRO: Adam Walstrum is the flag room supervisor.
WALSTRUM: It’s something that’s been done this way for over 170 years here in Philadelphia. And it’s an incredibly stunning product when seen in person. It has a dynamism and life that you don’t get with machine technology.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPINDLE CLICK)
SHAPIRO: The artists wind the thread on an old wrought iron and wood spindle. Then they weave it into a long braid before sewing it into the flag. And we don’t just make presidential flags here. There are also hand-sewn flags for the vice president and each branch of the military. Walstrum says these women consider themselves 21st century Betsy Rosses.
WALSTRUM: There will be a unique style that will come from each individual artist. Each of these millions of points – you will get a unique and personalized piece.
SHAPIRO: Is a million a real number?
WALSTRUM: Yes – over a million stitches.
DUWENAVUE SANTE JOHNSON: I want my eagle to fly off the page.
SHAPIRO: Duwenavue Sante Johnson has studied hand embroidery all over the world – England, France, South Korea – but she grew up here in the United States.
JOHNSON: We are artists, but embroidery is my tool.
SHAPIRO: And do you feel like you can express that artistic vision even when you’re following a predetermined design?
JOHNSON: Let me put it to you this way: When you go to work every day, right? – it is predetermined that you will probably wear a blazer. You’re probably going to wear a shirt and you’re probably going to wear pants – I guess – right?
SHAPIRO: Good guess.
JOHNSON: If that’s the case, can you still show who you are emotionally by what you choose to wear?
SHAPIRO: Yeah. So tell me what is the equivalent of that…
JOHNSON: It’s the same thing with this: If you actually look at this, you’ll see that everyone actually has a different stitch pattern. For example, our stitches are like calligraphy – nothing related to the other person.
SHAPIRO: For Duwenavue Sante Johnson, this work is both a form of artistic expression and a way to connect with her roots.
JOHNSON: I was born on Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is now the space base. So it’s a circle because we made the first Space Force flag here.
SHAPIRO: Huh. What did that do to you…
SHAPIRO: …Knowing that you were making the flag for…
JOHNSON: I felt like I was able to connect my family to a language that I speak – it’s in my life – that they could understand the value of an artistic practice. My family, both sides of the family, have been in the military since the Civil War.
JOHNSON: So it was my way of giving back by being able to express myself with the same values.
SHAPIRO: Spending months making a flag may seem like a long time, but artisans here think about it on a different time scale. These parts can be used for a lifetime, even more than a century. With every stitch, they want to make sure the work will last.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And thank you to member station WHYY and the Public Media Content Conference for supporting our reporting journey. You can hear more about Philadelphia elsewhere on today’s show.
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