Flag stitch

Trudy Wadsworth, the volunteer to the left, shows Mike Stiegler, from Columbia, how to stitch. This event at the Maryland Historical Society allows people to make a single stitch in the reproduction of the Star Spangled Banner. (Photo by Eileen Ambrose / Baltimore Sun / August 11, 2013)

On most days, Tony Wheeler of Arnold is a guide for a company that offers historic tours in Maryland. But on Sunday, Wheeler became part of history himself.

Wheeler, wearing a top hat and early 19th-century attire, joined hundreds of volunteers at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore to help sew a reproduction of the original Star-Spangled Banner.

"This is the first time I sewed in my life," said Wheeler, 78, after adding his stitch to the hem of the flag.

The project is part of events marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The society is reproducing the Star-Spangled Banner, using fabric and stitching similar to the banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key's lyrics for what became the national anthem.

The original flag was commissioned in 1813 by Maj. George Armistead, commander at Fort McHenry. Flag maker Mary Pickersgill and a handful of helpers completed the 30-by-42 foot banner in six weeks.

The historical society is trying to meet a similar deadline and expects to complete the work Aug. 22. The plan, weather permitting, is to fly the flag at the Defenders' Day celebration at Fort McHenry on Sept. 14. Defenders' Day commemorates the defense of Baltimore on Sept. 12, 1814.

Kristin Schenning, director of education at the society, has overseen the project. She said she started by getting a copy of the conservation report from the Smithsonian Institution, which restored the original flag in the 1990s. The report described how the cloth was woven, how many threads it had per inch — 17 — and how the flag was sewn.

The next step was to find wool bunting, the kind of material used in the original.

"People really don't make it any more," said Schenning, noting that most flags are now made of more durable nylon.

Family Heirloom Weavers in Red Lion, Pa., agreed to make the wool bunting. Schenning then turned to local quilting clubs to find about 200 volunteers to do the bulk of the sewing. The original flag had at least 150,000 stiches, she said.

For two days this month, the public has been invited to come to the historical society and work on the flag. Volunteers first demonstrate how to sew, then each person is allowed to add a single stich. More than 1,000 visitors have had a hand in the project.

"They have a sense of ownership for the flag," Schenning said.

"The most gratifying thing is when people come in to make a stitch, they are so excited," said Della LeConte, one of the volunteers from Ellicott City.

"We saw the original earlier this summer at the Smithsonian, so this is exciting to come and be part of this one," said Carrie Blough, curator of the Historical Society of Frederick County, who was accompanied Sunday by her husband.

Blough grew up learning to sew from her mother, a seamstress. But Blough's husband, Daryl Hasse, said his needlework experience is limited.

"I didn't stick myself so that was a good thing," said Hasse, a chef, after finishing his stitch.

Volunteers and visitors worked under bright lights Sunday on the flag, stretched across a long table.

Pat Reber, a food historian from Ellicott City, imagined it would be much harder in Pickersgill's time.

"It would be awkward. It would be dark. You would be squinting," she said. "And there were only six of them."

Kristi Elkner came from Marietta, Pa., to volunteer, stitching on a star, stripe and the flag's hem. Elkner said Pickersgill and her helpers likely didn't realize the importance of the work.

"We have the luxury of looking back and seeing what they did," she said. "I don't know if they felt it was going to last forever. People just made flags."

Burt Kummerow, president of the historical society, said the project makes people feel history.

"We struck a nerve," he said. "It's the old Tom Sawyer thing. He got people to white wash the fence; this is a lot cooler than that."

Several local celebrities, including politicians such as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Rep. John Sarbanes, have sewn a stitch, too.

"We had the Orioles' bird. He had a tough time stitching," Kummerow said.

Schenning said after Defenders' Day celebration, the historical society plans to take the flag around the state to other bicentennial events.

The project was financed in part by a campaign that raised $11,300. The historical society also is working on a smaller flag replica that it plans to raffle off. Those proceeds will help pay for the giant reproduction to travel nationwide, Schenning said.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com