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Inside the workshop where presidential flags are lovingly made, mostly by immigrants

The presidential flag (center) is hand embroidered.
Caroline Gutman for NPR
The presidential flag (center) is hand embroidered.

Philadelphia – city of brotherly love, birthplace of American democracy. And the only place in the world where presidential flags are made.

The work happens in a small space in northeast Philly, on a military base with jets parked outside. It's called the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Flag Room. Inside, a 13-person team spends months hand embroidering the flag that bears the famous presidential seal, complete with the eagle clutching an olive branch in one claw and arrows in the other.

Almost all of the team members are women, and most of them immigrants.

Left: Helen Hoa Nguyen embroiders a design on a flag. Right: Nancy Chhim, 54, a sewing machine operator, works at her embroidery table.
/ Caroline Gutman for NPR
/
Caroline Gutman for NPR
Left: Helen Hoa Nguyen embroiders a design on a flag. Right: Nancy Chhim, 54, a sewing machine operator, works at her embroidery table.

"It's the world to me," says Nancy Chhim, who came to the U.S. from Cambodia 30 years ago not knowing any English. She has worked on the team for 15 years.

"It made me so proud to be here, especially to make the presidential flag," she says.

The room is largely quiet save for the gentle sounds of needle and thread. Dung Lam, who learned to sew as a kid in Vietnam, is hard at work on an eagle's tail feather, stitching tiny diagonal threads of white and gray. She says it can take one-and-a-half days to sew a single feather.

"It's really hard. Your eyes have to focus for 8 to 10 hours," she says.

An embroidery machine at the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Flag Room.
/ Caroline Gutman for NPR
/
Caroline Gutman for NPR
An embroidery machine at the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Flag Room.

In addition to the presidential and vice presidential flags, embroiders also hand stitch flags for every military branch. Completing an entire flag can take up to six months, and it's extremely competitive to land a job here. Applicants can wait years for an open position or until someone retires.

Adam Walstrum, the flag room supervisor, says this speaks to the exceptional nature of their work.

"This is the only team in the world that makes the presidential flags that go to the White House," he says. "This is something that has been done this way for over 170 years here in Philadelphia. And this is a product that is incredibly stunning when seen in person. It has a vibrance and a life to it that you don't get with machine technology."

Left: Duwenavue Sante Johnson, 51, embroiders a design on a flag. Right: Bobbins of thread used for the flags.
/ Caroline Gutman for NPR
/
Caroline Gutman for NPR
Left: Duwenavue Sante Johnson, 51, embroiders a design on a flag. Right: Bobbins of thread used for the flags.

Walstrum says these women think of themselves as a 21st century Betsy Ross, after the famous upholsterer who made flags during the American revolution.

"There's going to be a unique style that comes from each individual artist," he says. "Each one of those million stitches, you're going to get a very unique and personalized piece out of it."

Personality oozes out of Duwenavue Sante Johnson, who eagerly volunteers other women to speak about their craft, and who has studied hand embroidery all over the world: England, France, South Korea. She considers herself and her colleagues artists, with embroidery as their tool. And that even under a flag's predetermined design, individual style leaves its mark.

"If you actually look at this, you'll see that everyone actually has a different stitch way pattern. Like, our stitches is just like penmanship — nothing is related to the other person," she says.

A framed machine-embroidered tapestry depicting historical flag embroidery is on display in the room.
/ Caroline Gutman for NPR
/
Caroline Gutman for NPR
A framed machine-embroidered tapestry depicting historical flag embroidery is on display in the room.

For Johnson, the work is more than artistic expression, it's a way of connecting with her roots.

"I was born on Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is now Space Force Base. So it's all a circle because we actually made the first Space Force flag here," she says. "I felt like I was able to connect my family to a language that I do — that's in my life — that they could understand the value of an art practice."

An art that Johnson and her other embroiders make to last a lifetime.

"We want to make sure that these last for 100 years at least," she says.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Marc Rivers
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.