There is no more cherished 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 important and 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 flags.
How to Wash the American Flag Correctly
Washing any 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 hand-wash 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 and your flag will be ruined. You'll be better off to just buy a new, replacement flag.
If the colors do not bleed, you can also place the flags that need a cleaning in a clothes washer. If you choose to use a washer, set the cycle to gentle and always use cold water for both the wash and rinse. This will 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 what type of material that your flag is made from or if it is an older vintage flag, take it to a professional dry cleaner. Many offer free American flag cleaning services, especially in the month of July.
Decorative, state and organization flags can be cared for in the same manner.
How to Remove Stains from the American Flag
If your flag has tree sap stains or is excessively dirty from the outdoor elements, 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 in a large sink, plastic storage container or bathtub. 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 that are either white or colored. If stain is not gone, repeat this step. When no stain remains, 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.
How to 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 a 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 it to a professional seamstress or a conservator if the flag is vintage.
Flags that are excessively torn or frayed should be disposed of 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.
How to Store a Flag
If you have a vintage flag or one you only use 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. Secure with cotton string and store covered with a plain cotton sheet to keep away dust. This will prevent wrinkles and keep the flag ready to use.
Vintage flags should be cleaned thoroughly and stored flat, if possible, to prevent strain on any of the seams or 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 keep temperature and humidity factors regulated. Excessive heat and moisture can cause fabrics to weaken and mold. If you have a flag framed or stored in a flag box, use UV reducing glass.