Happening now: re-creating the star-spangled banner

Mimi DietrichMany of you know Mimi Dietrich as a nationally renowned teacher and the best-selling author of numerous quilt books. She comes by all the accolades honestly—they all stem from her delight, enthusiasm, and passion for appliqué. When Mimi heard about a one-of-a-kind appliqué challenge in her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, she jumped at the chance to become a part of it. The challenge was on an enormously grand scale—we’re talking two-feet-wide appliqué motifs!

We welcome Mimi to Stitch This! today to tell us about her involvement in this exciting, poignant project—re-creating the Star-Spangled Banner flag for an upcoming celebration in Baltimore. Here’s Mimi to tell us more about the inspiring story behind the stitches of the original flag and the new flag, and the amazing legacy that an everyday woman left behind.

Star-Spangled Stitches

Stitching History--Recreating the Star-Spangled BannerI live in Baltimore, Maryland, and love Baltimore Album quilts. This summer my hand-appliqué and hand-piecing experience led me to a once-in-a-lifetime project. Technically, it’s not a quilt, but my quilting skills and quilting friends have played a large part. I have been working on an amazing project called “Stitching History” at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. We are re-creating the Star-Spangled Banner!

Here are some facts about my latest Baltimore appliqué project:

Mimi's sewing supplies
My supplies!

Block size: 16′ x 16′ (yes, that’s feet, not inches!)
Total size: 30′ x 42′

Materials List

  • 250 yards of wool flag bunting fabric
  • A whole bolt of white Kona cotton fabric
  • Ten spools of linen thread
  • Lots of needles with big eyes
  • 4 large boxes of Wonder Clips
  • No pins
  • 200 volunteers

It’s the biggest appliqué project I’ve ever worked on!

Do you know the story behind our country’s national anthem? In 1814, two hundred years ago next year, Francis Scott Key woke early after a battle in Baltimore Harbor. He looked up through the dawn’s early light, saw a huge American flag flying over Fort McHenry, and wrote a poem that is now our National Anthem. That Star-Spangled Banner is now in the National Museum of American History in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

Go back one year before that. A flag maker named Mary Pickersgill in Baltimore was commissioned to make a large garrison flag for a fort, to be flown on special occasions. This is the Star-Spangled Banner that inspired our national anthem. It is 30′ x 42′ in size!

Original American flag design
The design of the original Star-Spangled Banner flag.

Now, two hundred years later, the Maryland Historical Society’s Director of Education is also a park ranger at that fort—and a modern-day Mary Pickersgill. She visited quilt guilds in the Baltimore area to build excitement for this fabulous Stitching History project. We are recreating the Star-Spangled Banner by hand! We are hand piecing 15 stripes that are each 42′ long, and appliquéing 15 stars that are each 2′ wide. It’s a challenge, but it’s also fun, amazing, and very emotional!

How did I get involved? I was just sitting at a meeting of the Baltimore Appliqué Society when a wonderful young woman proposed the project and showed us a piece of fabric as long as a 42′ stripe. I couldn’t sit in my seat any longer…I had to be a part of this! I wanted to appliqué a star!

Mimi stitches a star
My wish come true.

Every official volunteer had to learn how to piece the stripes with a technique similar to a flat-fell seam. We learned from milliners from Historic Williamsburg. The blue area of the flag was also pieced from strips. The fabric we used is a very lightweight wool bunting, woven by a company in Pennsylvania especially for the project in 25″-wide strips, the same width of the stripes.

I was very excited about appliquéing the stars, and I became the star leader after the blue field was assembled. Responsibility, yikes! But this has been an incredible adventure. I have loved every minute!

Here’s how the stars were made. After making a star pattern that measured 2′ across, I cut out 15 stars from freezer paper. Then I ironed the freezer paper to the star fabric. We used white Kona cotton because although the original flag was wool, the stars were cotton. My appliqué grad class basted the freezer-paper seam allowances over the freezer-paper stars. I know Mary Pickersgill didn’t use freezer paper, but I wanted to shape the stars and protect them during cutting in a later part of the process.

Mimi's applique grad class
My appliqué grad class!

One of the biggest challenges was placing the stars correctly. The blue field is 16′ square, and the stars needed to be placed just right. A few brave quilters climbed onto the tables and a spotter helped. We pinned them on and then basted them in place.

Placing the stars

We appliquéd the stars to the front of the flag using linen thread and a #9 milliners needle, taking ¼" stitches. The blue fabric is 24 threads per inch, and a small stitch could pull the threads out of place…another challenge!

Stitching the stars

When the stars were done, we turned the flag over and cut the blue fabric away from the back of the stars. We reinforced the fabric with a ¼" strip of fusible Pellon…sorry Mary, but the blue fabric frayed like crazy! Then we turned the cut edges under to finish the back of the stars. One layer of cotton fabric created the stars, very much like Mary Pickersgill did 200 years ago.

Cutting the back of the stars
Cutting the back of the stars

Hand stitches
Hand stitches on the back of the stars

Back-lit star
A back-lit star

The stripes were pieced together in two sections—the short 24′ stripes and the long 42′ stripes. The blue star field was stitched to the short stripes, then the long stripes were added to put the entire flag together. It’s not a quilt, but our experience with piecing and appliqué sure did come in handy!

The flag taking shape

More than 200 volunteers signed up to take a stitch in history—quilters, appliquérs, dressmakers, tapestry makers, and stitchers. In addition, more than 1000 people took stitches in the flag: children, families, historical impersonators, WWII veterans, our mayor, a US senator and a US representative, plus people from 45 states and 15 countries. The museum invited them to come take a stitch on two open-sewing days; visitors to the museum were also invited to take a stitch any day we were working.

The project started on July 4, 2013, and the flag was finished on August 22, 2013. This is approximately the same time of year that Mary originally made the flag. But she had no air conditioning and worked in a small row house. We worked in a large conference room at the Maryland Historical Society, large enough to lay out the finished 30′ x 42′ flag. She didn’t have Ott Lights or rotary cutters or freezer paper or Wonder Clips to keep 42′ of fabric together. We are in awe of her!

Mary Pickersgill reinactor
A woman reenacts the part of Mary Pickersgill

The flag will fly from a huge flagpole at Fort McHenry on September 14, 2013, Defender’s Day in Baltimore. We have already cut patriotic quilting fabric into squares for each volunteer to use as a hankie. We are sure we are all going to cry when it flies. This has been an amazing summer!

The completed flag
The completed flag.

Completed flag
Isn’t it gigantic?

Test run of the Star-Spangled Banner flag
A test run—with "happy endings"!

The completed flag 2

Mimi, what a tribute to your expertise to play a leading role in such a remarkable project. Thank you for sharing your uplifting story with us!

To make your own homage to the American flag, check out our patriotic-quilt roundup. If you’d like to learn more about Mimi and her passion—appliqué—you can pick up one of her popular books:

Books by Mimi Dietrich
Baltimore Blocks for Beginners, Mimi Dietrich’s Favorite Appliqué Quilts, A Quilter’s Diary

What do you think of Baltimore’s homage to the flag? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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