How to Clean the American Flag

American flag hanging from pole in front of house porch

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

There is no more recognized symbol of the United States than the American flag. Whether you fly a flag daily or bring it out to honor our country on special days, taking care of the flag is a sign of respect. If your flag is looking dingy or is soiled, washing it is quite appropriate. The U.S. Flag Code does not prohibit washing our national flag.

How to Wash Flags Correctly

Whether it is the American flag, a college or special group flag or a decorative garden banner, washing a flag on a regular basis can prolong its life. Most outdoor flags are now made of polyester or nylon; however, cotton flags are still available.

The safest way to wash a multi-colored flag is to handwash in cool water with a mild laundry detergent. If you are unsure if the fabric is colorfast, test it first. Wet a cotton swab with plain water and rub the tip on each color represented. If any dye transfers to the swab, the colors will probably bleed when the flag is washed. You'll be better off to just buy a new, replacement flag.

If the colors do not bleed, you can also toss the flag in a clothes washer. Set the cycle to gentle and always use cold water for both the wash and rinse to help prevent excessive wrinkling and, hopefully, reduce color bleeding.

Do not put any flag in a hot clothes dryer. Instead, hang it up on a clothesline or drying rack and allow it to drip dry. If the flag is wrinkled, use a cool iron to press nylon or polyester and a hot iron for cotton.

If you are not sure about the fiber content of your flag or if it is vintage, take it to a professional dry cleaner. Many offer free American flag cleaning services, especially in the month of July.

American flag crumpled in washing machine

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

How to Remove Stains From a Flag or Banner

If your flag has tree sap stains or is excessively dirty from the outdoor elements, it will need to be presoaked before washing. In a large sink, plastic storage container or bathtub mix a solution of oxygen-based bleach (brand names are OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener or OXO Brite) and tepid water following package directions. Submerge the entire flag. Allow it to soak at least four hours or overnight and then launder as usual. This type of bleach is safe for natural and synthetic fabrics both white and colored. If the stains are not gone, repeat the process. When no stains remain, launder as usual.

The oxygen bleach solution will also help to remove any color bleeding that may have occurred during use or previous washings. However, it will not remove rust stains from grommets or other metal. Those require special treatments and products for stain removal.

Cotton swab brushing against American flag to remove stains

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

How to Properly Make Repairs to the American Flag 

If your flag is in good condition overall but has a small rip, you can channel your inner Betsy Ross and make repairs; but make your work as unnoticeable as possible. While the Federal U.S. Flag Code does not give specific dimensions for the flag; you should not dramatically alter the size of the flag during repairs.

Requirements for flag sizes authorized for federal executive agencies can be found in Executive Order No. 10834. 55. These regulations provide that the length of the flag should be 1.9 times the width. If you are not a Betsy Ross, take the damaged flag to a professional seamstress or a conservator if the flag is vintage.

Flags that are excessively worn or frayed should be retired properly following the U.S. Flag Code which states, “the flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” Many veterans organizations, scouting troops or ROTC groups will accept tattered flags and dispose of them properly. 

American flag stripe being repaired by hand with thread

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

How to Store a Flag

If you have a vintage flag or one you use only occasionally, proper storage will keep it in good condition. For modern-day flags, use a long cardboard shipping tube or PVC round tube to roll up the flag to prevent wrinkles. Secure with cotton string and store covered with a plain cotton sheet to protect it from dust.

Vintage flags should be cleaned thoroughly and stored flat, if possible, to prevent strain on any seams or the fabric. However, that is not always easy to do. The next best thing is to roll the flag around a shipping tube that you have padded with acid-free tissue paper. Again, cover with a cotton sheet or muslin to prevent dust from settling on the fabric. Store the flag away from sunlight and in a spot where temperature and humidity factors are regulated. Excessive heat and moisture can cause fabrics to weaken and mold. If you wish to have a flag framed or displayed in a flag box, choose UV-reducing glass to protect the colors.  

American flag rolled into thin cylinder and tied with string for storage

The Spruce / Sarah Lee