There is a great deal of pride in Gary Gibson’s job.
He works as the director of operations for Annin Flagmakers at its 186,000-square-foot South Boston, Va., plant. He is one of many who helps the manufacturer produce 10 million flags per year.
“I was in Army for three years,” Gibson said. “After serving in the Army, I then began producing the U.S. flag. You have a great respect for your country and flag (after that).”
Annin Flagmakers has been manufacturing flags since 1847. They have 500 workers in total, working at its two plants located in Virginia and in Coshocton, Ohio.
Mary Repke, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Annin, said 70 percent of their sales go out the door during their peak season starting in March and April right before Memorial Day and July Fourth.
Overseeing flag production
Gibson, 54, has been working at the Virginia facility for 14 years.
Inside, you’ll find 250 workers who rotate between three different shifts during their busy season. They work on pre-production for American, state, international and custom flags.
Raw materials are brought into the plant, then dyed, measured, cut, and sewn until they transform into the U.S. flag that is ready to be packaged and shipped.
“We pretty much do everything from start to finish here,” Gibson said. “Any business or entities that you can think of that has a flag, we produce it here.”
He makes sure everything runs smoothly. Like any job, there are its challenges.
“When you’re dealing with that many people, it’s always stressful,” Gibson said. “Everybody has their own situation and personalities. But we’re creating a product everybody’s proud of. That helps a lot.”
Repke said the floor of their production facilities is always busy – packed with workers sewing, packaging, embroidering stars.
When sales spike
In order to prepare for Memorial Day and Fourth of July shipping, the company starts preparing in October of the previous year. They sell to major companies, such as Target and Walmart.
The local retailer Kempton Flag in Wall, N.J., also carries Annin flags. Pulling up to the storefront, visitors will immediately be greeted by a sea of red, white and blue. The property is covered in U.S. decor, ranging from windmill spinners to U.S. flags waving in the wind on 25-foot flagpoles. The store itself may be tiny, but inside it’s packed with American flags from floor to ceiling.
A stand up sew cell in Ohio makes it easier and more comfortable for workers to produce flags. (Photo: COURTESY OF ANNIN FLAGMAKERS)
Shawn Kempton, who’s owned the store with his brother since 2001, said he chose Annin Flagmakers as his manufacturer because they’ve provided high-quality flags for the last 170 years.
The retail store’s busiest time is right before Memorial Day. He said during the month of May, they’ll get anywhere from 50 to 60 customers a day, ranging from residents, veterans to town representatives.
“Memorial Day is the biggest. It’s because everybody’s heart’s in the right place. It’s much bigger than the Fourth of July, much bigger than Flag Day. The country’s about its veterans.
“(The U.S. flag) is the symbol of freedom, the symbol of this nation,” he added. “That’s why it resonates so much.”
After Donald Trump won the G.O.P. presidential nomination, flag sales skyrocketed in Monmouth County, he added.
At one point, there was a back order, and Annin had its employees working three shifts in order to keep up with the demand. Kempton also noted that flag sales in the Midwest “exploded.”
Repke said that Annin typically sees flag sales spike the year after the election.
“They’re expressing their opinion whether they’re happy or sad,” Repke said. “They’re expressing their opinion and loyalty at the same time.”
She added that traumatic events, like hate crimes, shootings or terrorist attacks cause unexpected spikes. September 11, Repke said, was the biggest increase in sales Annin has seen in this generation.
They had employees working three shifts, seven days a week, Repke said it took about 10 months before the company could catch up with orders.
As a result, people began buying flags online, which aren’t regulated. Many of those flags came from overseas unlike those from Annin Flagmakers, which are certified “Made in the USA” by the Flag Manufacturers Association of America.
Repke said throughout the years, there has been an ongoing discussion about the importance of making sure U.S. flags are 100 percent American made.
As of February 2014, the Department of Defense cannot purchase flags overseas and hang them over military bases, according to the USA Today Network. They must purchase 100 percent American-made flags.
“If you were in our military and putting your life on the line, you’d want to make sure that the flag on your flagpole is made in the U.S. and not in China,” Repke said. “It has tremendous symbolism that is about our freedom and democracy, our right to vote, equality.”
To speed the production process up and add comfort for the workers, Annin uses a stand-up cell sewing technology.
“(Workers) are standing instead of hunched over their machines,” Repke said. Workers also work together in a somewhat assembly-style method.
Instead of one person sewing the entire flag, one worker will work on the short stripes, while another will work on the longer stripes. One will sew the blue field of stars to the short stripe, and other puts on the heading and grommet. The last worker inspects and packages it. Repke said this makes the process more fluid.
There is also a facility in Cobbs Creek, Va., that only embroiders the blue field of stars onto the flag. More than a million stars are embroidered at the facility each year.
Gibson said they will dye the fabric they receive blue, then send it over to Cobbs Creek so that they can add the stars. It will then be shipped back so they can sew the stripes portion of the flag to the blue portion.
The most popular flag sizes are 3 feet by 5 feet, using nylon fabric, which can handle varying weather, or poly-cotton fabric, a less expensive blend for indoors. For offices and corporations hanging flags outside on a pole, the dimensions can be as large as 30 feet by 60 feet.
Honoring their employees
Repke said every year on Flag Day, June 14, the company celebrates its employees with service awards. They recognize employees who’ve been working there for five years up to 40 years.
“One thing that impresses me is the longevity of people working here,” Repke said. “At our plants, people enjoy working for the company. They can go home and say, ‘I make the U.S. flag and all that it stands for.’ They really have a sense of pride for their work.”
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