Flag Tutorial: Making Cloth Flags
I take a fair bit of effort to create my own flags. I see many people's armies and units whose flags are an afterthought, an inconvenience or a nuisance step in the process to paint up a unit of toy soldiers and get them on that table. I get it completely. Many of us probably think it's too fiddly or that we feel unable to compete with the level of detail commercially produced flags can achieve through the printing process. In many ways this is neither wrong nor unreasonable but I'd like to make the case for making your own flags and provide a crude how-to for what I am doing these days.
When my eye falls on a unit of finely painted toy soldiers one of the first aspects which catches my attention is the units flags. This is perhaps particularly the case for the large flags (colours or standards) that were popular from the renaissance through to the end of the nineteenth century - particularly and consistently for German and British flags. They are relatively big, colourful and meant a lot to the men who fought beneath them - so I always thought I should put some care into their reproduction also.
The problem with commercial paper flags is they look like what they are - stiff or shaped paper flags. The designs and print qualities aside, they just don't look like a silk flag. I suppose I should specify here that I'm really talking about 28mm scale flags. For smaller unit flags such as French Napoleonic flags of 15mm armies I'm perfectly happy to go with a printed flag.
I used to design and fashion my flags from tissue paper. It was thin enough to re-trace the mirror image of any design exactly on the other side (handy), easily shaped when wet with white glue and they set nicely. They were a perfect surface to paint on also. But since I saw a few commercial flags produced using the finest of cloth, I took the leap and can't go back.
I use a very fine suite lining fabric - white so I can draw on it. I cut oversize so once set later in the process, I trim the edges back to the proper dimensions. For this example, I am making a British set of 28mm flags for the 3/60th regiment of foot for the British Army at Quebec 1759. The flags represent a 6' x 6' 6" slightly rectangular flag and I use slightly generous (oversized) measurements of 35mm height at the staff x 40mm long.
The initial measurements for the cloth exceed the 40mm length considerably to allow me to wind the cloth onto the steel wire flag-pole - I'll be trimming it off anyway. I run a carefully applied smear of Selleys Kwick Grip glue up the wire to allow fixing the 35mm width of cloth. I ensure that about a 5mm or so gap is left at the top of the wire where I will later fix the finials and tassels. I use steel wire cut and straightened with the top filed off to a slight point to seat better into the drilled finial. I first fix just the very edge of the cloth to the wire and let then set properly before applying sufficient glue to then wind or wrap the cloth around until it covers the join. I then let this set properly.
Now I can draw my design with a pencil. The cloth gives and shifts and I admit it's not as good a drawing on paper but the lines can be traced effectively through this cloth on the other side.After my basic design is complete it's time to wrap them.
I simply fold the cloth back on itself concertina style working from the wire outwards until the cloth is fully folded against the wire and then wrap it in cotton - no need to tie it up - it will hold. I then immerse it completely in a bath of diluted PVA white glue and give it a half hour or so to soak fully. This is why it's important that the previous application of glue fixing the cloth to the wire is fully set.
Once I retrieve the flags from the solution, I unwrap them and tease them out to open up the folds. As you can see this time I have pinned them to aid this as the little flags dry. This process sets the future shape of the unfurled flags and also sets the fabric sufficient for painting. As I write this I realise I made all this up as I went along over time through experimenting. I'm sure other people must be doing something similar - I just haven't seen it.
Once set, the flags are then trimmed and the cloth painting can begin. Even though the cloth is soaked and set in a PVA solution, if the paint is thinned too much it will still bleed into the fabric. I darken my shades with a little black to get a richer shade and because the white will lighten the application.
Once I finish painting the flags themselves, I then fix the finials. These are from Crusader which are specific to my Quebec project. Having worked with these finials I am compelled to say I prefer the Front Rank variants which are just that little bit more robust. I drilled out the ends so I could fix them to the wire with Supaglue.
It's worth pointing out that these flags took a lot of handling and still retained their shape so you don't need to be too precious with them. In fact the handling helped round out the folds. They also take a fair amount of detailing but that depends upon the weave of the fabric. The finial chords were simply painted in darkened red with a gold highlight to represent the red/gold thread. The gold or brass finial was given a brown undercoat before gold dry-brushing.
I emphasised the creases with a diluted black/brown wash but depending upon the colour of your flags, be careful of bleed-through to the other side. You don't want partial shading lines on the reverse highlights - given that one side's recess is the other side's bulge. It would be of benefit to spray coat it with a matte varnish first - I didn't. I applied the same wash from the bottom edge and end of the flags. I refrained this time from applying tears or bullet battle damage but it's always an option.