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Carroll County Times

Local quilters and the fabric of history

Connie Richman, of Westminster, wasn't particularly familiar with the story of the Star-Spangled Banner, but her interest was peaked when a member of her quilting guild mentioned a chance to help make a replica of the flag that inspired the national anthem.

"I like history and I like to sew so it felt like a perfect match," Richman said.

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Richman and other members of the Four Counties Quilt Guild had been contacted by the Maryland Historical Society, which was asking quilters across the state for help in hand-sewing a historically accurate replica of the 30 foot by 42 foot flag that was flown over Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sept. 14, 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the national anthem.

"This is my first flag and I think it's really cool," Richman said. "It's just fun to think that you're part of recreating it."

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According to Amanda Davis, exhibitions project manager at The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Museum in Baltimore, it was 200 years ago this summer that a woman named Mary Pickersgill was contracted by army Maj. George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, to produce a large flag.

"In the early spring of 1813 Armistead commissioned Mary Pickersgill to make the flag with the simple instructions that it needed to be a large garrison flag," Davis said. "She also made a smaller storm flag that ... has never been recovered."

Pickersgill, with help from her mother, three nieces and an African American indentured servant, completed the flag in about six weeks over the course of the summer, which is why the Maryland Historical Society asked quilters to begin sewing the replica in July, according to President of the society Burt Kummerow.

"This is the actual time that Mary Pickersgill was working on the flag 200 years ago," Kummerow said. "I was very interested in the idea of doing as authentic a reproduction as possible. We have such a hard time getting ourselves into the clothes and shoes of those people from that era ... The idea of sewing something like this together by hand is just daunting by our point of view."

Davis said that the Flag House helped the historical society find a fabric that closely mimicked the original material of the flag, a loosely woven wool.

"The material is slippery; it's extremely loosely woven, so it's very difficult to hold on to and get your stitch into it," said Debby Brehm, another member of Richman's quilting guild. "You think of wool and expect hot and heavy, but this is not like that at all."

Brehm, Richman and more than 150 volunteer quilters are working in the historical society's auditorium, stitching 10 feet each of the flag, according to Kummerow, and are presently stitching the longer stripes together.

"I cannot imagine what [Pickersgill's] working conditions were like," Richman said. "They were sewing with [the fabric] in their lap. Today, we're in a big room with tables, air conditioning and lighting. I still wonder how they got it together and it actually looked like a flag when it was done."

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There will be two Public Sewing Days at the Maryland Historical Society, Aug. 3 and Aug. 11, where anyone with a little sewing ability can add their stitch to the flag, according to Kummerow.

"It takes about 10 minutes. We have to show you how to make the stitch," Kummerow said. "We're tying to get people to make reservations ahead of time so that they can be assured of a time."

According to Brehm, the loose weave of the fabric requires a tight stitch that takes the low thread count of the material into account.

"In quilting, you want your stitches to be close together and tiny," Brehm said. "In the flag, because the nature of the fabric, you're only get four to five stitches in an inch, sometimes even less."

Reservations for a chance to make a stitch in the flag can be made online at

http://www.mdhs.org

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, and Kummerow said it's a unique opportunity to both experience living history and to help make future history.

"If this thing is carefully taken care of, then 50 or 100 years from now, people can still it drag out," Kummerow said. "Everything we have from 1914 is a big deal now; it becomes a piece history."

The flag's immediate destiny is flying over Fort McHenry during the Defender's Day celebrations on Sept. 14, according to Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation with the National Park Service at the fort.

"The flag will come to the fort with great fanfare," Vaise said. "We will have a big fireworks show, a simulated ship to fort bombardment and a concert by the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldier's Chorus. You don't have to wait until 2014 to get the good out of the bicentennial."

The new flag will also fly over the fort in 2014 for celebrations around the bicentennial of the bombardment, and after that, Kummerow said he hopes to unite the replica flag with the remains of the original Star Spangled Banner, presently housed at the Smithsonian, along with a special lyrical manuscript from the historical society's collection.

"We don't have final approval but we are working on taking it to [the District of Columbia] and joining them up," Kummerow said. "One of our great icons, a national treasure, is our original manuscript of Francis Scott Key's poem that he wrote the night he was released by the British ... Since the original flag survives as well, it would be wonderful to join them up."


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