The flags that fly above royal households such as Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle are iconic emblems of British pride seen by millions of visitors throughout the year – from the national Union Flag to the Royal Standards of members of the Royal family.
How many people, however, know how those flags are made, and by whom?
The next time anyone catches a glimpse of the Union Flag, or Union Jack, as it unfurls in the wind from a flagpole at a Royal household, they might take a moment to think of the craftsmanship that is behind each one of those emblems of our national identity.
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That flag may well have been manufactured by Flying Colours Flagmakers, of Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, a company founded by managing director Andy Ormrod almost 30 years ago and which is promoted as the Queen’s Flagmaker.
As a Royal Warrant Holder to the Queen, the company is likely to have manufactured hundreds of the flags now seen flying from royal households across the country and other British establishments around the world.
Andy’s company is also an officially licenced reseller of Ministry Of Defence Armed Forces flags, manufacturing everything from regimental flags to flags for veterans’ associations and other British military organisations.
UK’s largest Union Flag
Andy’s company made the largest official Union Flag in the United Kingdom at Windsor Castle, which is 38ft by 19ft and flies at the castle various days of the year. There is also a Royal Standard that measures the same size.
The Union Flag is flown above Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace or Sandringham House when the Queen is not in residence, otherwise the Royal Standard is flown when the sovereign is present.
A flag of that size can present some issues, particularly in strong winds, so the company also makes a smaller version that can be flown on blustery days so that it does not snag on the flint walls – to make sure the national flag keeps flying proudly come rain or shine.
Andy said: “Windsor Castle is a tricky one because the massive flagpole is made from Columbian Pine, it is quite smooth, but when they hoist the flags, the flags can catch on the sides of the castle which is made of flint.
“There’s a lot of flint in the stone so it’s sharp, and so they’ve got to be really careful when they hoist the flag, especially when the wind catches.”
He added: “There are various sizes they fly. If it’s really windy, they’ll fly a small flag, because if you fly a big flag in the wind, it will deteriorate quicker.”
He said that sometimes a smaller flag is flown if the weather is particularly bad, to at least show the Union Flag is being flown but one that is less likely to be damaged in strong winds.
He said: “The smallest ones they fly will be a two-yard flag, six foot by three foot, that’s generally the smallest size, and then the largest standard flag that the Royal households will fly will be a four-yard flag, which is 12 foot by six foot.”
Andy added that one point for taxpayers to note was that if a flag is damaged, the Royal households do not simply throw them out and replace them but will send the flag back to his company for repairs, so each flag can be given a new, long-lasting lease of life.
How is the Union Flag made?
Thousands of stiches are involved in the process of creating each flag and, 31 individual pieces of fabric are used in the manufacture of a Union Flag of the kind seen flying from a Royal residence such as Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle.
Each one of those pieces is expertly crafted and stitched to create the Union Flag which consists of the red cross of St George, representing England, the white saltire, or heraldic diagonal cross, of St Andrew, for Scotland, and the red saltire of St Patrick to represent Northern Ireland. Andy said:
“You have got your St George’s Cross, that consists of three, so it’s a parallel, horizontal red bar, then a bit at the top and bit at the bottom, so there’s three bits, then the four red diagonals, so that’s four, three plus four makes seven, then you’ve got eight blue triangles, so that makes 15, then the rest of the flag there’s 16 white what we call fimbriations which are either side of the red on the Union Flag.
“So all these need to be stitched together, all cut at different sizes for different sizes of flag. There’s different lengths, we’ve got special patterns for everything, and they put them together neatly, and hey ho, you have yourself a high-quality Union Flag.”
The company's range of flags vary from a 6in (15cm) desk-top flag to the largest union jack in the UK, which measures 38ft (11.5m) by 19ft (5.8m) and can be seen flying from Windsor Castle.
What is the Union Flag made of?
Flying Colours Flagmakers manufactures its royal and military flags to a Ministry of Defence grade.
Its royal flags such as the Union Flag are made of a special form of woven polyester.
Knit polyester fabrics tend to have a soft, stretchy texture, giving them a feel similar to cotton knit while woven polyester tends to have a lighter, silkier feel, making each flag feel high-quality and soft and silky to the touch.
Andy said that when he first started making flags for the Royal Household, he had to find out what standards applied to manufacture which required some research.
He said: “We had to find out the hard way, pre-internet. No internet, so you had to find out what was what, and why and how, we went round all the houses to begin with.
“The Americans use nylon, and in this country that’s frowned upon, we don’t have nylon flags.
“So we use an MOD-grade fabric and it’s called woven polyester, some people call it spun polyester because it’s the way it’s not weaved, it’s spun.
“But what I say to people who are wanting to describe it, it’s similar to a nice linen tea towel, so it’s that type of fabric, like one that you’d buy in a National Trust gift shop. It’s that sort of fabric so it feels clothy and that’s the high-grade flag fabric.”
He added that the company does make other ranges of flags, which are knitted and which can be printed on that are a thinner grade.
How did Flying Colours Flagmakers become the Queen’s flagmaker?
Andy’s company began making flags for the Royal Households just over 20 years ago.
He said it was a long process to finally secure a warrant but he first had the entrepreneurial idea to reach out to the royals after he heard that the company which had been supplying the Royal Households with flags for more than a hundred years had been bought out by another company and were changing their business direction away from flagmaking and focussing on marquees instead.
He said: “I heard about this, in our early days, because we’ve only been manufacturing in business since 1994, and I’m thinking ‘Who’s going to supply the Royal Household?’
“So, how do you get in touch with them? Well, you just ring ‘em up.
“So I picked the phone up, contacted the telephone number and it’s the answerphone message, and it was, I always remember this one, ‘If you’ve been told to ring this number please put the phone down as you are through to the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace.
“Anyhow, I waited and I was put through to reception and I basically explained who we were and can you put me through to the person who is responsible for purchasing flags, and they put me through and I thought, well this is never going to happen.
“Anyway, a chap answered the phone and I explained who we were, what we were, and he kept on listening and I did say that I believe that your current flag supplier is no longer in business or able to have the ability to manufacture flags for you, and they said, ‘Yes, we are aware of this’.
“So I said, ‘fair enough, if anything comes of it, this is our name, make a note, and that was that.”
He waited for several months but heard nothing, so he tried again, but again, he heard nothing for some time.
Eventually, he called Buckingham Palace again and made an offer to manufacture a Union Flag for the household, free of charge, to demonstrate what the company could do.
He said he told his contact at the palace: “We’ll send you this flag and you can do what you like with it, you can undo it, look at it, display it, fly it, it’s yours, and if you like it, please use it, and if you don’t, that’s it.
“So, best quality flag as usual which is what we do manufacture here and that was that.”
Then, the breakthrough that Andy had been aiming for finally arrived.
He said: “Then, two weeks later, the old fax machine rattles up, and this order came through for, I think two or four more, but we still have the fax somewhere and there it was, it was their first order.
“I thought ‘Woaah!’
“It was as simple as that. And these two were on a proper purchase order system and it was so exciting, first getting the order and then the prestigious client we were making it for and then having to invoice them.”
A more formal business relationship developed from then on, with the company gaining a Royal Warrant as an official flagmaker in the year 2000.
Since then, the company has regularly supplied the Royal Households with a range of flags, of different sizes, including Union Flags and Royal Standards for individual members of the Royal family.
Andy said the company now makes flags for the Royal Household all the time, adding:
“Things build up over time, you build up a trust, you build up a rapport, they ask questions, they have the odd problem, like a flag might have snared or something stuck and then you become all these other factors as well.
“And gradually, slowly and surely, you know, more small orders come in, larger orders come in, and then you start making the Royal Standards for the Queen and for all the family members as well, and this is just constant, continual movement.
“We’ve got orders in at the moment for various Royal Standards."
He said you would see the company’s flags flying at Balmoral, Kensington, Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and other royal properties.
“Duchy of Lancaster estate, anything associated with the Royal Households really, you know, and Princess Anne, and so on.
“They really take some time to make as they are all hand sewn, so they are a lot of work, a lot of hours in them.”
How did Andy get into flagmaking?
Andy started his Flying Colours Flagmakers company in 1994, following a short time of unemployment.
He had started out his working life in travel, a career carved out of his love for skiing, a sport he had been heavily involved in as a boy.
At one stage, he had represented his home county of Yorkshire in the sport and had once been invited to train for England in the early 1970s.
He had hoped that working abroad in travel would be one way to carry on with his love for the sport, which had become very expensive, but after some years in that line of work, he found it was not one of the highest-paid jobs, so he moved into the insurance industry.
However, after working in insurance for some time, he found himself unemployed and it was during that time that, while taking the dog for a walk, the idea to go into flagmaking came to him. He said:
“I took the dog for a walk, saw a tatty flag flying on a flag pole, at a small local garage, and I thought ‘ripped to shreds that thing, that’s fabric.”
He already had an idea about how textiles and sewing worked as a business as his wife made wedding dresses and he hit upon the idea of manufacturing flags.
Seeing the tatty flag made him realise there might be a market to make quality flags and so, he started researching how many flag-making companies there were in the UK, and who they supplied to – and he says he had his heart set on running his own flag-making business.
That was almost 30 years ago and now the company employs a team of staff and manufactures flags for customers all over the world – with the Royal Warrant helping to promote the business both home and abroad.
The company also specialises in British Armed Forces flags as an official reseller of Ministry of Defence flags.
Clients for these flags include veterans of the range of regiments, Armed Forces associations and other groups in the wider military community but the company will also at times be involved in the procurement system for the Ministry of Defence.
Andy said: “We make lots of military flags, we’re an official licenced reseller of MOD military flags.
“This covers Royal Navy, Army, and the Royal Air Force, Royal Marines of course, and we’ve got many, many flags and designs, all Crown Copyright, so depending on where it is, all the RAF stations, Coningsby, you name it, Ascension Island, and everywhere, Aldergrove, anything, we can make them, we’ve got all the designs.
“We’ve got official MOD artwork, and they look glorious, and quite a few folk are buying those.”
The next time anyone looks up at a flag at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle or another royal household, they might take a moment to ponder the expert craftsmanship of Andy and the team at Flying Colours.