Skip to content

They sew 5 million American flags a year. Then politics happens

How does a national symbol go from factory to firestorm? ‘The Flagmakers’ tries to find out

American flags stand  in the Capitol Rotunda in December ahead of a ceremony to recognize police officers who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
American flags stand in the Capitol Rotunda in December ahead of a ceremony to recognize police officers who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After three years of filming inside a factory just south of Milwaukee, Cynthia Wade and Sharon Liese will never see the American flag the same way again.

“We got to see how significant this little piece of fabric can be, and how much meaning people put into it,” Liese says.

At Eder Flag, employees meticulously sew the point of each star, until the nylon or polyester flags start to look like works of art. Then, they get shipped out into a country where flying the flag can be divisive. 

“The Flagmakers” may be just 35 minutes long, but the documentary spends time with a wide range of workers, including a Serbian immigrant and a war survivor from Iraq. For filmmakers Wade and Liese, it was a chance to explore some uncomfortable questions.

With a spot on the Oscar shortlist and an option for a Broadway musical, they hope the conversation isn’t over.

“You can have both hope for this beautiful, fragile democracy and you can also feel despair,” Wade says.

“The Flagmakers” is available to stream on National Geographic and Disney Plus. This interview has been edited and condensed. For more, listen to the latest episode of the Political Theater podcast. 

Q: How did you get started on this project?

SL: Several years ago, we were talking about the anti-immigrant sentiment that was just growing by leaps and bounds. I live in Kansas City, and I found this program where women who are refugees and immigrants were learning to sew in a sewing program. At the end of that program, they would find work somewhere, and one of the women found a job at a flag factory. Cynthia and I said, “Whoa, this is the story.” 

We were not able to get access to that factory in Kansas City, so we did a nationwide search and found this flag factory, Eder Flag, in Wisconsin. 

Q: What did you feel about the American flag as a symbol going into it?

CW: This project came from our discussions of how increasingly uncomfortable we both were with displaying the American flag. I felt like over the course of several years, the American flag had been co-opted by the very extreme right. There was this narrow, inflexible and almost belligerent sort of stance, where it was, “Always stand, and no questions asked.” 

It didn’t allow for any discussion about nuance or the history of this country. You can have very complicated feelings, and so we wanted to pursue a project that held both hope and despair. 

When we found the largest American flag and flagpole manufacturing plant in the country — with more than 90 percent immigrants and refugees literally sewing the stars and stripes of our flag — we realized this was an ideal place to explore those issues.

Q: Not to overstate it, but these suburbs of Milwaukee are one of the places where elections are decided — where we determine the majority in the Senate, for example.

SL: When we walked in there and we saw all the people and all the different faces, and knowing there were lots of different values and different beliefs and different perspectives, it was a dream for us. We said, “This is the face of America right here.”

CW: We followed the flagmakers over the course of three years. We started the film in 2019, and six months into filmmaking, everybody was hit with a pandemic, obviously. So that was challenging. 

But we continued to film, and we also filmed the 2020 elections. We followed our flagmakers up until the point where they were going into the polling stations and voting, those who could vote. We filmed their reaction to the insurrection in 2021. A lot of our flagmakers actually sewed the flags for Kamala Harris’ inaugural speech, which is amazing. 

But in the end, we chose to move away from those particular moments, and go for something that was maybe a little bit more of a contemplation or meditation on the American dream — and is there an American dream?

Q: There’s this moment where you show factory employee SugarRay watching Jan. 6 coverage, and one of the insurrectionists is beating a police officer with a flagpole. I couldn’t help but think he must have been wondering, “Is that one of our flagpoles?”

SL: Exactly. And for SugarRay, that’s the department he manages — he oversees the flagpoles being made and being shipped out. Thousands go out, so undoubtedly there had to have been some there. 

We hear a lot of people telling us these days, “I don’t want to put a flag out, because I don’t want people to think that I think something other than what I do.” And one of the ways people are getting around that is putting out another flag — pairing the American flag with another flag so people know your politics. You see that around the country, which is sort of a sad situation.

Q: You show some of the employees encountering racism, and one gets attacked at a Walmart. But they still come to work to sew this symbol of democracy.

CW: Unfortunately, there were way more character arcs than we could even fit into the film. What’s cool is that the producers from the Broadway musical “Come From Away” have optioned this to be a musical. So if that happens, which of course could take a decade, then we could use some of that footage to be an inspiration.

It’s funny. At first, we both felt, “Wait, what, a musical?” But when you think about the factory, it really is what I wish our country could be. There are more than a dozen languages spoken on the factory floor. They may not share a language, but they share this common skill of sewing and just dedication to the craft. There’s a big sign in the shipping department that says, “If it’s not right, don’t ship it.” You hear the radios from around the world, with Moroccan and Mexican and Serbian music. The food that comes out in Tupperware in the break room at lunchtime is lovely. 

And then the flags get sent out, 5 million of them a year, and they become politicized. They become used as either political signals in front of somebody’s house or in the back of somebody’s pickup truck, or they literally became tools of violence during the Jan. 6 insurrection.