Were most of the flags made in the Confederacy sewn by hand or by sewing machine?

That question does not have an “yes” – “no” answer. The mental image that history has passed to current generations would have us believe that all of the sewing in the South was accomplished by groups of patriotic ladies sitting in groups in parlors sewing away by hand. In fact all of the major improvements relating to the sewing machine had been patented nearly a decade before the Civil War, and sewing machines had been widely advertised and purchased in major metropolitan areas of the South prior to the War. Indeed, before the War a plant for the manufacture of sewing machines (Lester’s Manufacturing Company) had been established in Richmond, which would be converted to an arms manufactory (Union Manufacturing Company). So, the question as to whether flags were made by machine or by hand depended on the presence of a machine in the home of the person making the flag or flags.

Most Confederate battle flags were “manufactured” at three government “clothing depots”- the Richmond Depot, the Charleston Depot, and the Atlanta Depot. To understand whether such battle flags were made by hand or by machine, it is necessary to understand the way the depots operated in the manufacture of uniforms and flags.

The Confederate clothing depots were modeled on the system that had been employed by the old “Schuylkill Arsenal” (the Philadelphia Clothing Depot). Under the system devised by that depot early in the nineteenth century, cloth was delivered to the depot. There it was provided to cutters who laid a pattern on several layers of cloth and cut it by hand. After the different pieces of cloth needed to several uniforms had been cut, they were bundled with the necessary trimmings and then picked up by local ladies (often widows of servicemen) and taken to their respective homes for assembling. Upon returning with the completed items, they would be inspected by a government inspector, and a receipt would be issued to the sewer so that she could obtain a voucher from one of the clerks by which she might obtain payment for her work. The system resembled the “factory” system of towns in Europe.

The Confederate Clothing Depots operated on this same system. The space available varied from Depot to Depot, but as a general rule no sewing was done on premises, and accordingly no sewing machines were on hand. For the making of battle and other flags, cloth would be drawn from stores on hand or from the central storehouse within the city. Under the direction of a superintendent, the cloth would be measured, and government “cutters” would then scissor the individual components for several flags. The separate parts of a group of flags would then be bundled, and the bundles (“pieces”) would be distributed to local women, who would take the pieces and a pattern (probably a flag already made) home and sew the pieces into flags. Whether the flag would be sewn by hand or sewn by machine depended on whether the woman taking the pieces had a sewing machine at home; it not, the flags were sewn by hand. Upon completion of a group of “pieces”, the woman would return the completed flags (and the pattern) to the “Depot”, where they would be inspected by a government inspector. His clerk would then issue a voucher and the woman would be paid “by the piece”, i.e. by the completed flags produced.

An illustration of the magnitude of this operation is found in a letter from W.G. Ferguson of the Richmond Clothing Depot. Writing on 18 November 1862 about the operations of his facility, Ferguson stated, “We have employed in this depot about 60 cutters and trimmers and 2000 women to make the clothing, mostly wives and daughters of absent soldiers in the field and the poor of our city.”

Howard Michael Madaus based on research by E.J. Coates, Fonda Thomsen, Grace Rogers Cooper, Greg Biggs and other historians.