One of the most common items of summertime decor is the American flag. It’s customary to display it on Memorial Day in honor of the fallen, on Flag Day to commemorate the day it was adopted by the country, and, of course, on the Fourth of July. Displaying the flag outside, though, exposes it to wind, rain, sun, and dust, all of which can leave it looking dirty.
If you grew up hearing bits and pieces of flag etiquette, you might wonder if it’s okay to wash an American flag. After all, there’s an entire section of the U.S. Code devoted to its federal regulations. Not only is it okay to wash the flag, it’s considered respectful to keep it clean and in good repair—and not just the Stars and Stripes, but state flags, team flags, and flags representing organizations, too. The cleaning professionals at Merry Maids® have put together some tips for cleaning a flag, repairing a flag, disposing of a flag, and otherwise caring for a flag of any kind.
How to Wash a Flag
Before you clean a flag, you first need to know what material it’s made from. Flags designed for outdoor use are often constructed from nylon or polyester, but some may use cotton or wool—look for a label or tag to know for sure. The label may also give you care instructions, but if not, you have three options.
Depending on the flag’s material and colorfastness, you may choose to:
- Machine wash – Flags made from synthetic fabrics, like nylon and polyester, are usually safe to machine-wash in cold water on the delicate setting using a mild detergent. Lay flat or hang to dry; the heat from the dryer can be very damaging to these materials. If necessary, use a cool iron to carefully remove any wrinkles.
- Hand wash – For flags made from natural fabrics, especially cotton, gentle hand-washing with an oxygen-based or all-fabric bleach and cold-to-lukewarm water is recommended. The oxygen-based bleach and cold water can help prevent color bleeding. As with synthetic fabrics, do not put natural-fabric or cotton flags in the dryer, as the high heat can be harmful. However, a hot iron may be used to smooth any wrinkles.
- Dry clean – If your flag has sentimental value or you’re unsure of the material makeup, bring it to a professional dry cleaner for the best results. Many will clean American flags for free or for a reduced price, especially around patriotic holidays.
Tip: You can check if the flag is colorfast by rubbing a water-dampened cotton swab on a small area of each color of the flag. If any color transfers to the cotton swab, the colors will likely bleed when washing. Stick to dry cleaning or very careful hand-washing.
Caring for Older or Historical Flags
Until sometime around the mid-20th century, flags were often made from natural and fairly fragile materials such as cotton, silk, wool, or linen. Historical textile conservators are trained in the care and preservation of these materials. If you have an heirloom flag and wish to clean it, it’s best to consult one of these experts for specific advice on how to clean, display, or store it.
What to Do with a Damaged Flag
Sometimes, exposure to the elements or improper storage can cause damage to a flag. If it’s a minor hole or tear, a good seamstress should be able to repair it quickly. The U.S. flag should not be altered in any noticeable way, but most repairs of this nature should be fairly unobtrusive.
When a flag has become frayed, faded, or damaged beyond repair—basically, according to the U.S. Flag Code, when it’s no longer fit for respectful display—it should be given a dignified disposal. The code suggests burning it, but you may also wish to find a local veterans’ organization, ROTC program, or scout troop who will dispose of it properly.