How to Make an American Flag

I got to thinking about flags and their meanings last week when my friend David Mahfouda unveiled his latest American flag. There have been three of them. The first was lost, the second was destroyed by a frenzied crowd. Now the third has just been unfurled. It is enormous: 65 by 130 feet—about a third of the length of a football field. Mahfouda's flag began as a political project, and it still is, in a way. But now, he also says it simply means "home." The story of his flag, like the story of the American flag, is always evolving.

Mahfouda first decided to make a flag in 2006. At first he thought of using white cloth, like a truce flag, and hanging it from the Brooklyn Bridge. As a graduate student in engineering and product architecture at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., he had spent a lot of time on bridges. "I was really taken with them," he told me, "and I had the idea to unroll a bolt of fabric from the bridge, like a sculpture." Bridges in New York were potential terrorist targets. September 11 was on Mahfouda's mind, too. The attacks had changed the skyline by an act of destruction. What if, he wondered, you could alter the skyline not with an act of war but with something that felt constructive? And what about using an American flag?

Dropping a huge flag from a bridge at the risk of arrest is not out of character for Mahfouda, 27. An art major in college, he has done several public art projects, and he's also participated in several protests. Mahfouda has a strong build and a soft voice, and gentleness, despite his size, is usually the first thing that people comment on when they meet him. I first got to know him in a seminar in college. He was an anomaly: a recruited lacrosse player from Long Island who read poetry and was one of the kindest people I have ever encountered.

To make the flag, Mahfouda called in a favor from a friend, Jane Van Cleef, who came down from Maine to help. They and a few others spent a weekend furiously sewing. They planned to drop it over the bridge on Sept. 12, 2006—the day after the memorials and remembrance. It was a day, Mahfouda thought, to consider "what we can control." On Sept. 11, they carried it to Central Park, to continue working. By the end of the day, they were drained, and they weren't done. Taking it to the bridge didn't seem possible. But something else seemed to be happening with the flag. Kids started playing with it. The flag was "an object they were able to touch, and walk on and walk under," Mahfouda says. "That seemed good."

His mother, Leah, was troubled at first by the sight of watching kids run all over the flag. "It was not the way I had been brought up to treat the flag," she says. But watching the children's enthusiasm changed her mind. "They don't mean disrespect." People would stop by to watch, and touch it, and help carry it. One man came over and said, "This is a statement of personal patriotism." He sat down, took a needle, and began to sew.

When the flag was finished, Mahfouda brought it to his parents' house. At one point, he and his father took it onto the roof and wrapped their house in it. People lined up in the street to see it. Sometimes he would take it out into the park or to the beach with friends and play with it, always taking a little time to repair the tears and fix the seams. For a while he left it outside, locked in a cart, so that it could be used more often, and so that other people might start using it, as well. The flag was a public object, after all. But when he came back from a trip in September 2008, the flag was missing; no one knew what happend to it. He dug through large trash containers looking for it, but it never surfaced. "I felt pretty lost without it," he said.

And so he decided to make a flag again, and again he rallied his friends. They sewed it in his parents' living room, with Jane taking charge of the Singer machine. Mahfouda's mother and aunt sat cross-legged on the floor, cutting stars. It took about two weeks to put it roughly together, and they turned the sewing of stars into a campaign fundraiser for Barack Obama. They called the sessions a "Mending Bee for Change." The idea was to raise money, but also to encourage people to think about the flag differently—not as something to reject, but to fix. "Something about seeing that homemade parachute-silk flag spread out on the grass, being quietly mended by some and merrily trampled by others, gave me a feeling I don't think I've had in its pure form since childhood," Dana Stevens wrote on Slate's XX Factor blog after coming across one sewing session with her kids. "I guess you could call it patriotism, but really it was more like (to use a word that's nearly been denuded of meaning in this endless campaign) hope." Mahfouda and his friends unfurled the flag in Union Square and took it on a parade from downtown Manhattan into the Brooklyn Bridge Park for a concert. Bystanders joined in and followed.

Mahfouda again started thinking about dropping the flag from the Brooklyn Bridge on the morning after the election, if Obama won, and if it felt right. That night, he took the flag to Brooklyn, and a group of high-schoolers helped him carry it all the way to Union Square. He decided to take it from there to Harlem and was about to jump in a cab when the election was called. Union Square filled up with people, and Mahfouda grabbed a few to help him. "It was gorgeous," he said. "The crowd sort of opened it up and passed it over. It felt like once the flag was unfurled and people were under it, they had arrived." (You can watch it on YouTube here) But a light post used as a kind of tent pole began to tear the flag, and people began to grab at it. Soon they were actively tearing it and wearing strips of the cloth. Before long, it was in shreds.

When I heard about the flag's destruction the next day, I felt a little queasy. What had begun as celebration, I thought, ended in desecration. In fact, though, the flag hadn't been torn up in anger or protest, and its pieces continued to hold some power. When Mahfouda's group took the pieces of the flag that remained into a subway car, the crowd passed it through the train and sang "The Star Spangled Banner." The next morning, he sent an e-mail to his friends. "That the flag is broken makes sense to me," he wrote. "Hopefully we can begin mending it again soon." The flag's meaning was shifting once more. "It seemed like maybe this was part of the project," he said later, "that part of what having a flag can mean is organizing people around it to fix it."

As it happens, Proteus Gowanus, a Brooklyn gallery, was having a yearlong exhibit called MEND. "One day he just walked in the door with this big bag," said Tammy Pittman, who runs Proteus, "and he said do you think we could mend this here? We said, of course!" A friend donated an old sewing machine, and every few weeks a group would gather to sew, using scraps from the torn flag and cloth donations.

Last Sunday, the flag was finally finished, and a crowd gathered to unfurl it. While Mahfouda's parents and aunt were grilling burgers and hot dogs, a couple dozen hipsterish 20-somethings stood in clusters, drinking beer. Mahfouda, wearing a checked shirt, paint-stained shorts, and mismatched socks, led me up to the roof, where the flag peeked out from its bag. It was the first time I had seen the flag in person. The nylon cloth was thinner than I had imagined, and it whispered when the wind caught it. I could see the stitched scars, and the patches of donated cotton. It took five people to send the flag over the side of the roof and into the lot below, and the flag was too big to extend fully. The crowd was quiet, almost solemn, as the stripes descended. Several times the fabric caught metal protruding from the roof or the rough concrete corners of the wall. The cloth made a soft zippering sound as it ripped.

Holding one corner of the flag, I realized that despite seeing American flags every day, this was only one of a handful of times I had held one. I thought about a summer, many years ago, when I had so proudly taken a turn carrying a tattered, partly burned American flag in a local Fourth of July parade. It had been on my grandfather's landing-ship tank at D-Day.

Mahfouda is not done with his flag. He's going to put it in the back of his Subaru and take it around the country, and it needs to be repaired again. The constant mending seems appropriate, says Van Cleef. "I find it a lot easier to start from scratch," she said, "but I think it's a very valuable mode to think in—to care for what's already there, to nurture an imperfect system." She was talking about art—BUT also, it seemed, about being a citizen.