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Meeting the Philadelphia team that embroiders presidential flags


Next time you watch the president give a speech on TV, look carefully at the flag behind him, the one with the presidential seal. You know, an eagle clutches 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 that work of art here in a room in northeast Philadelphia.

NANCY CHHIM: It's the world for me. It's the world.

SHAPIRO: Someone like Nancy Chhim.

CHHIM: It's made me so proud to be here, to work for the - especially make president flag.

SHAPIRO: When she came to the U.S. from Cambodia 30 years ago, she didn't speak any English. There are 13 people doing this intricate work at the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support flag room - almost all women and most of them immigrants. Their workshop is in a low building on a military base with jet planes parked at the entrance.


SHAPIRO: Dung Lam is working on an eagle's tail feather, stitching tiny diagonal lines of white and gray thread. She learned to sew as a kid in Vietnam.

How long does it take you to sew the one feather?

DUNG LAM: It's about 1 1/2 days.

SHAPIRO: One and a half days for that one feather.

To complete an entire flag can take six months. And it is 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 the presidential flags that go to the White House.

SHAPIRO: Adam Walstrum is the flag room supervisor.

WALSTRUM: 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 the machine technology.


SHAPIRO: The artists wind the thread on an old spindle made of wrought iron and wood. Then they weave it into a long braid before they stitch it into the flag. And they don't only make presidential flags here. There are also hand-stitched flags for the vice president and each branch of the military. Walstrum says these women think of themselves as 21st-century Betsy Rosses.

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

SHAPIRO: Is million a real number?

WALSTRUM: Yes - upwards of a million stitches.

DUWENAVUE SANTE JOHNSON: I want my eagle to pop 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 U.S.

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's predetermined that you're probably going to wear a blazer. You're probably going to wear a shirt, and you're probably going to wear pants - I'm guessing - right?

SHAPIRO: Good guess.

JOHNSON: If that's the case, do you still get to show who you are emotionally by what you choose to wear?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So tell me what the equivalent is of that...

JOHNSON: So same thing with this - is 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.

SHAPIRO: For Duwenavue Sante Johnson, this work is both a form of artistic expression and a way of connecting with her roots.

JOHNSON: 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.

SHAPIRO: Huh. How did that feel 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 do - that's in my life - that they could understand the value of an art practice. My family, on both sides of the family, have been in the military since the Civil War.


JOHNSON: So it was my way of giving back in the way that I could express myself with the same values.

SHAPIRO: Spending months to make a flag may feel like a long time, but the artisans here think about it on a different time scale. These pieces may be used for a lifetime - for more than a century, even. With each stitch, they want to make sure the work will last.


And thanks to member station WHYY and the Public Media Content Conference for supporting our reporting trip. You can hear more from Philly elsewhere on today's show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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.