Nearly eight years ago at a print shop in Philadelphia, a graphic designer taught himself machine embroidery and went from designing custom shoes for Lebron James to helping create the first U.S. Space Force flag.
Adam Walstrum is an embroidery digitizer in the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support flag room, where he helps make military and government flags as part of the clothing and textiles supply chain.
“I digitize the imagery on a computer and sew it on the computer-navigated embroidery machine. That could be anything from insignia shields or crests for battalions, universities or other special flags as needed,” Walstrum said.
He is one of three flag room employees who’ve proven essential to the flag room’s mission since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March. Walstrum physically works in the flag room with Linda Farrell, flag room supervisor, and Nancy Chhim, sewing machine operator, while wearing personal protective equipment and practicing social distancing. In June, Farrell gradually brought in additional staff, including hand embroiderers who make the presidential and vice presidential flags, to work on staggered schedules.
“The schedule is set up by steps of production. So if I bring in an embroiderer one day or one week, then the next day or week I’ll bring in a sewing machine operator,” she said.
Despite social distancing and an adjusted work schedule, Chhim she said she’s grateful to continue sewing gold and silver fringes to presidential and vice presidential flags. She learned to sew in her teens after moving from Cambodia to New York City with aspirations of being a fashion designer and has worked in the flag room for 12 years.
Each flag now takes longer to complete with social distancing, but the flag makers prioritize orders as needed, Farrell said.
“At the beginning of COVID-19, the priority was the Space Force flag,” she said. “We needed to meet our deadline and [the flag] hadn’t been unfurled at the White House.”
Walstrum said digitizing the Space Force flag has been among his favorite projects since joining the flag room team last year. Like most of the flags he makes, the Space Force flag is based on specifications from the Army’s Institute of Heraldry. Walstrum finds opportunities for creativity while learning about the history of military and government flag designs.
“Embroidery is all about problem solving,” he said. "Every logo, every insignia or design are all going to need a unique approach, so being prepared to adjust your style and technique for what each job entails [is important].”
Before joining DLA, Walstrum digitally embroidered for local and international companies, including creating promotional and custom apparel for the National Basketball Association. The fast-paced and high volume work environment helped Walstrum adjust to flag room demands.
“At DLA I’m able to focus on each order and give them more attention, which has definitely been a benefit,” Walstrum said, adding that sewers have their own styles and they all learn from each other.
Members of the flag room staff constantly try new techniques to improve their embroidery skills.
“I’ve been fascinated with the variety of skill sets on this team. It’s been inspiring learning from the work of the hand embroiderers and finding ways to create that aesthetic with something like machine embroidery,” Walstrum added. “The backgrounds of the employees here and the work they do has been very exciting and helps me improve my craft every day.”
To improve techniques, he and other embroiderers digitally embroidered a scene of Betsy Ross cutting the five-pointed star with George Washington for what became the first American flag. The scene was selected because the flag room symbolically aligns its flag making with Betsy Ross and has previously partnered with the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.
“The way that painting represents a moment in history, we pride ourselves in sharing this history,” Walstrum said. “This [was created] before we were offered the chance to digitize and sew the first Space Force flag, and we realized shortly after that we were about to take part in flag history. We’re pretty thrilled about how that worked out.”