Giant Star-Spangled Banner takes shape in Maryland

Volunteers line up stripes that, when hand-stitched together, will be part of a replica of the star-spangled banner in Baltimore.

Two-hundred years ago a Baltimore flag-maker stitched the flag that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner, and now volunteers are creating it anew.

BALTIMORE — It was 200 years ago this summer that a Baltimore flag-maker stitched the flag that inspired America's national anthem. Now, hundreds of people are helping to recreate the star-spangled banner.

The project began July 4 in Baltimore, and it is expected to take volunteers six weeks to hand-sew the estimated 150,000 stitches in the famous flag. When finished, it will be about a quarter of the size of a basketball court.

The public gets a chance to help with the sewing Saturday and again next week. Hundreds have signed up to participate.

"It makes the link with the past in a very tangible way," said Kristin Schenning, who is coordinating the project for the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore and helping to raise the money for the flag's approximately $12,000 cost.

Giant American flag: Joy WileyAP Photo: Patrick Semansky

With a model of the flag hanging above her, volunteer Joy Wiley sews a replica of the star-spangled banner in Baltimore.

The finished piece won't look like the 13-stripe, 50-star flag of today. Instead, the flag has 15 stripes and 15 stars representing the number of states in the Union when the flag was stitched to fly over Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1813. The sight of the flag's broad stripes and bright stars still waving after the British attacked the fort during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write his now-iconic lyrics.

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The flag was a bold statement from the start. Fort McHenry commander Maj. George Armistead said he wanted a flag so large that the British would "have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." Local flag-maker Mary Pickersgill was paid $405.90 to sew the 30-foot-by-42-foot (9-meter-by-13-meter) flag, which ultimately became so large that Pickersgill and her helpers took over space at a local brewery to sew.

Thought the flag was sewn by Betsy Ross? Not true. Ross gets credit for sewing America's first flag at the request of George Washington in 1777, but that wasn't the one that inspired Key's "Star-Spangled Banner."

Related: History's greatest revolutions

Giant American flag: volunteers smooth flag piecesAP Photo: Patrick Semansky

Volunteers smooth out sections of a replica of the star-spangled banner before they are sewn together in Baltimore.

This isn't the first time Marylanders have recreated the banner. In 1964, a replica was made for the New York World's Fair. That flag is at Pickersgill's house in Baltimore, which is now a museum.

This time, the historical society did a lot of research before stitching began. Using specifications from the original flag on display at Washington's Smithsonian, Family Heirloom Weavers, a Pennsylvania textile mill that does replica fabrics for war re-enactors and period homes, recreated the flag's wool fabric, which is similar to a gauze. And Janea Whitacre, an expert dressmaker at Colonial Williamsburg, taught a core group of volunteers the stitches and seams that were used.

Now, around 200 volunteers, most of them women and many of them from quilting societies, are piecing the flag together in an auditorium at the Maryland Historical Society. Jan Lucas, 56, a quilter from Eldersburg, Md., said working on the project makes her feel like she's "a piece of history," and other stitchers agreed.

"It's like taking you back 200 years to what they had to work on then. It's fun, it really is," said Carole Lee Custer, 65, a quilter from Halethorpe, Md., who generally works on the flag once a week.

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The plan is to hoist the finished piece at Baltimore's Fort McHenry as part of a celebration on Defenders Day, Sept. 12, the day that commemorates the successful defense of the city during the War of 1812.

Where the flag goes after that is still, well, up in the air. The Maryland Historical Society is working with the National Park Service to bring the flag to sites important to the War of 1812 and other significant sites nationwide. The Historical Society also hopes the flag will visit the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, where the original flag has been since the early 1900s, and possibly ground zero in New York.

"This is America's flag. It was made in Maryland we want to share it with as many people as possible," Schenning said.

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