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Caring for Old Glory

Norm Oehlke |

Memorial Day and Flag Day are coming up, meaning that Old Glory will be flying on homes and businesses everywhere. Isn’t it great to see? Do you have the flag proudly displayed in your store? If not, join your fellow Americans and display it.
Many drycleaners have been cleaning flags for free since Sept. 11, 2001. Customers appreciate this patriotic gesture. You could carry this patriotic promotion a step further by contacting local schools, libraries, and police and fire departments to extend the free flag-cleaning offer.
Cleaners sometimes experience problems in drycleaning flags, however. The blue fields can fade badly, while the red is usually colorfast. Test for colorfastness before cleaning any flag — many firms manufacture flags, and there is a lot of variance in dye stability.
When cleaning a flag, don’t just think “drycleaning,” though. Flags often have considerable amounts of water-soluble soils and respond better to wetcleaning. Flags flown outdoors get wet and accumulate lots of atmospheric soils and fumes, which are more water-soluble than solvent-soluble.
I fly my flag outside throughout the year, and it’s amazing how soiled it gets just from the exposure. It takes wetcleaning to make the whites pristine, and colors that are fugitive to drycleaning solvents are often colorfast in wetcleaning. A bath of soapy, warm water can change a grimy flag back into a thing of beauty — mine has been wetcleaned many times and still looks fine.
Inspect flags carefully at the counter. Look for badly frayed or torn areas, and inspect any accessories such as cords, ropes and tassels to determine if they will withstand the care process. It may be necessary to remove or tie them together with string to avoid tangling. A net bag is another option, particularly for small or fragile flags.
Air-drying instead of tumble-drying is advisable for flags that are wetcleaned and have attached fringe, cords or tassels. Flags made of nylon or another synthetic fiber will dry quickly.
Many flags are sewn with threads that were not properly preshrunk or were tensioned during sewing. These threads can shrink during drycleaning, wetcleaning and tumble-drying, causing a pronounced puckered effect. The finisher can try to correct this puckering with buck steam, followed by tension to stretch the shrunken sewing threads. In most cases, however, the threads won’t respond, and puckering is permanent.
Flags respond best to buck steam and a fine water mist in finishing, followed by lowering the head and applying the vacuum. The fine mist will partially soften sizing and finishes, but the heat and head pressure — applied while the flag is still damp — will give a crisp, smooth finish and body to the finished product.

About the author

Norm Oehlke

Retired Columnist

Norm Oehlke was the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Tips column from 1996 through 2007, as well as the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Guide. Now retired, he spent a lifetime in the industry — first in a plant, and from 1955 through 1995 at IFI and its predecessor, NID. He resides with his wife, Adeline, in Highland, Md.

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