For these Americans, sewing the Stars and Stripes is a labor of love

Amadou Sy sewed American flag stripes together at Allied Flag in Kansas City.
Amadou Sy sewed American flag stripes together at Allied Flag in Kansas City. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Deki Yangzom sits at a sewing machine in the production area of Allied Flag, hemming the stars and stripes together that will become American flags. For more than 50 years Allied Flag, owned by Prairie Village resident Steve Pack, has manufactured American flags that are flown all over the world.

Yangzom, a bilingual refugee of Bhutan, is happy to be making American flags in Kansas City thousands of miles from her homeland.

“It’s interesting and I can do it,” said Yangzom, a mother and grandmother.

Yangzom and her family came here in 2011 after years living in Nepal as displaced persons.

“We had to flee my country and go to Nepal to escape potential imprisonment,” said Yangzom, explaining that her husband’s political involvement made him a wanted man. “We lived there for 14 years in bamboo huts with no electricity.”

Today, Yangzom and her family live in Kansas City, not far from Allied Flag’s 100,000 square-foot facilities. Yangzom appreciates the freedom she has to work in a place she likes — and helping create the American flag, the ultimate symbol of freedom.

Since the Stars and Stripes were first created more than 200 years ago, millions of U.S. flags have been flown in displays of patriotism. And when Memorial Day rolls around next Monday, the metro area will be awash with U.S. flags — some likely made at Allied Flag or sold by two other local companies, Shawnee’s Flagsource Unlimited Inc. and Kansas City’s All Nations Flag.

“When you go see the red, white and blue flowing through our production room — it is extremely patriotic,” said Pack at Allied Flag. “It is the most meaningful symbol of our country.”

Allied Flag, at 1420 Kansas Ave. in Kansas City, is the only full-line manufacturer of American flags and flag products in the metro area. The company produces embroidered flags — one of the largest producers in the Midwest.

“We do our own embroidery and cutting and sewing of the flags,” said Pack of the family-owned business. “We get red and white material shipped here that comes in 200-yard rolls that are 72 inches wide, and we cut the red and white material into the stripes that become the flags.”

The company sends the blue material for the stars’ background to a Louisiana facility where a machine embroiders the 50 stars onto it, and then it is shipped back to Kansas City to be assembled with the stripes.

The embroidery machines at Allied’s 30,000-square-foot facility in Louisiana are quite large, 21 yards long, and sit in a concrete foundation that is very expensive, Pack said.

“We now have four machines there and we operate 24 hours a day with three shifts a day,” he said.

Allied Flag is a division of Allied Materials & Equipment Co., which makes a variety of products for the Department of Defense, including parts for the M-16 rifle as well as a private gun manufacturer.

Pack followed his father into the business in 1965 and became its owner in the 1970s.

It was a fluke that the company got into the flag business. While explaining production processes to a federal government customer, Pack was asked why his company didn’t bid on making U.S. flags for the government. In short, Pack explained it had to do with the inability to perform all the necessary processes to create and assemble flags in a cost-effective manner.

That conversation planted the flag idea in his mind. One of the missing pieces was the embroidery component of flag production. Pack and his colleagues researched what was needed to produce the flags cost-effectively, found the embroidery equipment needed in Louisiana, acquired it and went into production.

“We were able to set up to do our own embroidery … and we were the first to do all the steps with the flags together,” Pack said.

Allied produces flags in a variety of sizes using nylon, cotton or poly-cotton materials.

“We have made flags that are literally 30 by 60 feet where the stars are six inches in diameter,” he said.

After the star fields arrive from Louisiana, Yangzom and about 50 other employees stitch the flags together in Allied’s local facility. Pack described the sewing production area as a mini-United Nations.

“We have refugees from all over the world with up to nine different languages spoken in there,” Pack said. “Two people who were Vietnamese recently retired after they had been here almost 20 years. They come to us through Jewish Vocational Services and they come from all over, which is the American story.”

Allied has assembled a special book with these employees’ personal stories; it is shared with others at the company as a way to get to know one another.

With 80 employees between its two locations, Allied makes a lot of American flags: 1,500 embroidered flags a day. And they’re big: A residential flag is 3 by 5 feet; these are 5 by 8 feet.

Yangzom, who worked as a secretary in her country’s defense department, now produces her fair share of Allied’s flags.

“I keep track of the flags I make each day. I make 400 to 500 of the small ones and 300 to 400 of the bigger ones,” she said. “Each day I try to make even more.”

In addition to American flags, Allied produces printed flags for state and foreign nations.

“We also do some special embroidered flags primarily for the federal government, like different flags for the different branches,” Pack said.

The federal government is a big client. In fact, Allied is one of the largest producers of flags for federal agencies. The U.S. Senate, U.S. House, General Services Administration, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Postal Service all fly Allied flags.

“We now have a flag flying over the Senate,” Pack said. “They will procure them and fly them over the building, taking them up and putting them down and then sell them in the (Capitol) store. They will also have senators who give them to constituents.”

Allied has contracts with numerous state and local governments, community colleges and sports teams. Among its customers are the states of Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas and Washington, as well as the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Mariners. Closer to home, the city of Shawnee, the National World War I Museum and Truman Library have flown Allied flags.

Even Paul McCartney has used Allied flags in his concerts.

Allied also sells its products to other flag dealers and retailers like Amazon.

Pack said Allied flags have even been flown in various parts of the world, including in Russia. And of course, it’s an Allied flag that flies on the flagpole outside his Prairie Village home.

While Pack’s company manufactures American flags, Michael Vaille’s Flagsource Unlimited Inc. in Shawnee keeps busy installing and maintaining commercial and residential flagpoles in the area.

Vaille’s parents, Harold and Lois Vaille, started the business in 1987 from their Shawnee home. The couple had been in the apartment remodeling business when a conversation changed their path.

“We had friends in St. Louis who had a flag company and they suggested we go into the business, so they got us in touch with the right people,” Lois Vaille said.

“My husband was always a very patriotic person and he saw a need that there wasn’t enough people who were knowledgeable about how to fly the flag and how to maintain it,” Lois Vaille said.

“Harold was so proud when we would put up a new flag and pole and see them flying,” Lois Vaille said.

Mike Vaille joined his parents at Flagsource in 2010, taking full ownership after his father died in 2012. Lois Vaille continues to work with her son in the business, which still operates out of the family home. A flagpole stands outside with both American and Royals flags on it.

Mike Vaille said about 75 percent of Flagsource’s business is the sale and installation of flagpoles; the remainder of revenues comes from service and repairs as well as retail sales of flags from a small shop behind the family’s home. The shop sells flagpoles and equipment, American flags purchased from five suppliers and custom flags that can be ordered.

“We do a lot of shipping from the shop,” he said. “We do a lot of custom logo flags for city, banks and companies.”

The Vailles have sold flags to individual customers as well as the cities of Gardner, Shawnee and Lake Quivira.

It’s the flagpole side of the business that keeps mother and son the busiest. Just last week Mike Vaille installed a new pole at the Lenexa home of a veteran. Mike Vaille does most of the installation work himself but contracts out to a local company when he needs a bucket truck to help with repairs.

“Once in a while I will ask for help from a nephew,” Mike Vaille said.

It can take up to two days to put up a large commercial pole, while smaller residential poles take a day or less.

“We have a number of accounts with banks, school districts and cities repairing ropes and cables that often get tangled up. … A lot of companies call us to maintain their poles,” he said.

Weather is the biggest enemy for Flagsource, both in terms of installation and repair. The recent rainy weather delayed several jobs, Vaille said. April, May and November are busy months for flag sales “because the flags start getting tattered,” he said.

Lois Vaille said over the years flag sales have been consistent.

“They stay pretty much the same unless we have something drastic like war,” she said. “The ones that are patriotic are going to fly that flag no matter what unless something bad happens, and then everyone flies the flag.”

For the Vailles, flying the flag makes an important personal statement.

“We are proud of our country,” Mike Vaille said. “It is disgraceful to me when I see a flag that is terribly tattered and I don’t understand how people can allow that to happen. … It hurts. I like to see them get replaced. We enjoy taking care of them.”

Flagsource even includes preventive maintenance and flag display tips on its website.

All Nations Flag is a 92-year-old family-owned business that sells American flags made by other U.S. manufacturers and installs poles, too, mostly for businesses.

Originally a subsidiary of Wald & Co. Fireworks, All Nations Flag is owned today by Greg Wald, the third generation of his family to be involved. Wald’s son, Sean, also works in the business, located in the River Market area.

“The U.S. flag is the most important product for us. We sell thousands of American flags, with May and June being the most popular months,” Greg Wald said. Over the years, numerous area companies have purchased their American flags from All Nations Flag, including Cerner in North Kansas City.

“We have sent flags all over the world for Cerner,” he said.

Randy Carney of Gladstone has worked for All Nations Flag Co. for 31 years and manages a growing part of the company: its custom flag department.

In fact, All Nations Flag’s specialty is the custom flags it produces on site.

“When people have a corporate logo, family crest or barbecue team design, I am the one who helps to convert it to something that is printable and can be converted to a large format,” Carney said. “I do all the prep work for the applique flags, getting them ready for sewing.”

Among the company’s most visible clients are the Kansas City Royals and the Chiefs. It makes the Royals flags for the team, and the poles and ropes, and supply other flags they fly as well.

“We’re proud to say we have done everything for the Royals since the beginning and the same thing with Arrowhead and the Chiefs,” Wald said. “And Sporting (KC) just bought a big flag to hang.”

One of Greg Wald’s favorite memories is installing the flagpoles for the Royals to fly the first World Series championship flags in 1986.

“We made the first set of flags and we made them for their hall of fame,” said Wald, who was at Kauffman Stadium in 1986 when the championship flag was raised.

“I was standing there and (general manager) Herk Robinson raised the rope, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I hope the rope doesn’t fall off the pulley,’ ” Wald said.

All Nations Flag goes out before the start of the baseball season to check that all of the poles and flags work properly.

Having the Royals’ flag business has been great for All Nations Flag.

“Once you take care of a big customer like the Royals and you do it right, then the word gets around that you can be trusted,” Wald said. “When the Royals were in the playoffs, we sold a lot of those flags, and when the Chiefs were in the playoffs, we did a lot of those.”

Custom flag orders are often special — and have come from a variety of customers.

“We have made flags for an alumni group of the Air Force Academy that has gone up in the space shuttle,” Wald said. “The best part of the business is it is something that means something to the people who buy them. … It is a want, not a need … and they are excited to put up the flag, and that is really fun.”

While area residents work in various aspects of the flag industry, others give their time helping display the stars and stripes around Memorial Day. Volunteers around the metro area will be up early putting flags up along roadways and cemeteries, calling attention to this holiday that was set aside to remember those who died in service to America.

Since 1963, the Overland Park Host Lions Club has been behind the Metcalf Avenue of Flags, placing the Stars and Stripes along the busy thoroughfare for major holidays, including Armed Forces Day last Saturday and Memorial Day. The project first began with only 45 flags along a five-block area; this year, there will be about 500 flags fluttering from West 72nd Street south past College Boulevard.

“We have sponsors for the flags, businesses and individuals,” said Lynn Wolfe, the Lions Club treasurer and a Leawood resident. “They pay us roughly $25 per flag for the entire year and we put them up and take them down. … Sometimes there are gaps for those that don’t participate (but) we try to encourage contributors.”

The flag project is a fundraiser for the club, which uses the money for such things as eyesight services, eye screenings in Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley schools and even service dogs for the visually impaired.

Wolfe will be up at about 4:30 a.m. on Saturday to get things organized at the Overland Park Funeral Chapel, located at West 82nd Street and Metcalf, where the flags are stored. Just before 6 a.m. volunteers from the Lions Club, area Boy Scout troops and members of the Military Officers Association of America will arrive to pick up the flag bundles.

“We have about 30 volunteers. … We start putting them up at 6 in the morning and it takes about an hour to get them up,” Wolfe said.

The flags are placed into metal sleeves that are put in the ground for the year.

“We have our own little signature mark so the volunteers can see where they are to go,” he said.

The flags will go up on Saturday and come down on Tuesday after the holiday.

The club orders the flags from the 3rd District congressional office.

“We get about 50 flags to replace per year,” Wolfe said. “We lose four or five a holiday and have to replace them.”

Wolfe said a handful of members work on the flag project all year long, soliciting sponsors and repairing flags and poles. Member Neal K. Nichols has been involved in the Metcalf Avenue of Flags project since the early 1970s. For Nichols, who was a member of the Army Reserves and lost a grandson in Afghanistan, the flag project is meaningful.

“It’s a patriotic thing for me,” Nichols said. “Your heart kind of thrills seeing those flags wave and know what it represents. … It gives me a certain feeling of pride that I help the city look better on those holidays.”

While Wolfe is not a military veteran, participating in the flag project brings him a sense of pride as well.

“It’s a way I can demonstrate appreciation for not just the military but people who work to make this country what it is,” Wolfe said. “It reminds people as they drive the street that it’s great to be an American. Plus with the proceeds, we’re able to do some good things in the community. … It is a double purpose.”

Over at the American Legion Post 370 in Overland Park, there will be about 60 flags on display around the facility.

“We also decorate servicemen’s graves at seven different cemeteries in Johnson County, including Shawnee Memory Gardens,” said member Bill Hodge, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. The group will put out about 1,200 small flags that have been donated.

“It is important to realize that people served and gave their lives for our country and it is important that we make sure they were honored,” Hodge said.

In Liberty, Michael Grassley, quartermaster of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4043, leads a small group of volunteers who put up flags in the cemetery at William Jewell College and Glenridge Cemetery in Liberty. They will conduct a Memorial Day ceremony at Glenridge at noon to give respect and honor those who have fallen, Grassley said.

Putting up flags and doing a ceremony are important to Grassley, who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

“I am a veteran and it is our responsibility to attempt to continue the memory of those who have gone on before us, and not just combat veterans but every veteran,” he said. “We need to keep it in the public’s mind. … Everybody served that flag and our nation, and this is one simple way we can do it.”

Members of American Legion Post 95 in Liberty put up an Avenue of Flags in two city-owned cemeteries — Fairview and New Hope. About 350 flags will be up for the weekend of Memorial Day, said Mary Cravens, a member of Liberty’s Cemetery Advisory Committee.

The post has been doing the project for about 15 years and sells flag sponsorships to the public.

“They get up early that morning and put them up and then take them down every night because the cemetery is not lighted,” Cravens said of the post’s respect for rules that require flags to be illuminated at night.

They have a service at noon at the main flagpole at noon on Memorial Day.

Cravens said area Boy Scouts would also come to the cemetery on Saturday to place individual little flags on the graves of veterans.

Placing of the flags is annual ritual in the Northland, Cravens said.

“It is to honor our veterans, said Cravens, “and it signals the beginning of summer for a lot of people.”