“They’re everywhere, on every street corner“ exclaimed one of my customers, “ … and I want a feather flag to put outside my shop “. We gladly obliged, but on delivery, he offered another question – “who invented them ?” I was lost for an immediate answer, since flags have been used for events, festivals, heraldry and decoration for hundreds of years, so where did it all start?
The concept of mounting a flag on a single tapered pole of bamboo or fibreglass pole is certainly not new or innovative, but the unique curved shaping of the feather flag and the exponential growth of its use for event branding, began about thirty five years ago within the kite flying community.
Before the American Kite Association was established in 1964, kite flying in the western world was largely regarded as hobby reserved for children and geeky adult men. But by the late 1970s that view was starting to change, with the publication of one book – David Pelham’s “Book of Kites”. Within five years, and with an additional boost by the publication of the “Kitelines” magazine – the relatively small and isolated hobby groups, grew into much larger organisations who would meet to display their own work, and the kite “festival” was born.
Across the other side of the world, India and East Asia, kite flying is and always was an activity, which young and old could watch and participate. Each country had their own traditions and developed their own styles of kites. Though immediate neighbours, kites flown in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have very different features in respect of design, construction, their cultural and religious meanings. Those of China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan also differ considerably.
Almost all countries have specific days or seasons, when kite flying is used to celebrate a religious, or historical event. Gujarat- to celebrate the passing of winter into summer ; Weifang – in homage to ancestors to ward off bad luck . These celebrations were usually confined to villages or small towns, but some had grown to attract a wider audience, both nationally and internationally.
In 1984 a group of kite enthusiasts from the American Kite Association, were invited to attend, or were involved in kite festivals, in Singapore, Weifang in China, and Bali. The annual kite flying festival in Bali, in which a number of teams take part, was different in that had retained much more of its religious significance – ” to send a message to Hindu Gods to create abundant harvests and crops.”
Tall flags with a long flapping tails, supported by a single bamboo pole, have long been used in Hindu culture at important ceremonial and religious events, weddings and funerals.
The name “Umbul umbul” or the Sundanese “Tungul-tungul” which I am more familiar, both translate merely as “ banners”. The “umbul umbul” were displayed at Balinese kite festivals during the 1980’s where both kites and flags, provided new inspiration for international designers.
Over the next text ten years, kite festivals all over the world would grow larger, more colourful, with arrays of streamers, and banners, adding to the the explosion of kite shapes, and designs. Widely travelled and highly respected, George Peters, an American flag/kite artist created a range of flag designs using strips of coloured rip stop nylon supported by long bamboo poles, in his installations and displays in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It was George, as a fledgling flag and kite designer, living in Hawaii, who coined the description “feather banners’, though much by default. For his first exhibition at the Phoenix Contemporary Arts Center in 1982, the reviewer described his banners as “… having a ‘feather’ like shape” and the name stuck. George’s “feather” banners were however designed with a straight pole and a curved trailing edge, which became the standard for many years and used principally for decoration.
Clearly influenced by the “umbul-umbul” of Bali, and the work of George Peters, the now more familiar rectangular form, with a right angle curved pole to the tip and a straight trailing edge, came much later. This simple, but crucial change to the design of feather flags has been attributed to Martin Lester – another highly respected kite designer, based in Bristol, UK. Made from rip stop nylon, with appliquéd graphics supported by a fishing rod whip, this style of construction became the model for the numerous designs which followed. Initially only for display, they were prime for use as outdoor event advertising. From my own diaries and photos, and from correspondence with Martin, they were first used for advertising purposes at the Bristol Kite Festival in 1993 .
The year 2000, may have brought us into the 21st century but arriving with it, came a whole new range of printing technologies, at affordable prices, which would transform the textile and sign making industries. LSDP – large scale dye sublimation printing; computer generated, low volume, full colour printing on a range of substrates – specifically textiles had suddenly become achievable.
Post apartheid, with trade sanctions lifted, international markets opened up for South Africa’s innovators, designers and manufacturers resulting in a whole raft of original products. With low labour costs, South Africa was able to compete with the emerging industries in China, Durban became the hub for the development of products for outdoor event branding. Sunsmart Pty, under the leadership of John Bailey, introduced a new form of feather flag – the “flying banner’ in 2001. This was unique in design, having a much wider curve at the top, and a straight, taut trailing edge. Retaining manufacture in South Africa but marketing their products via international franchisees – Sunsmart became world market leaders.
The combination of full colour, low cost digital printing, the availability of lightweight, pultruded tapered fibreglass, the growth of outdoor sports, festivals and other events gaining television exposure, advertisers were hungry for new products to fulfil their needs.
As the worldwide demand for feather flags exploded many new companies from USA, Europe, Australia, South Africa, South America, Asia and inevitably China, came into the market offering shapes, with straight, diagonal, fluted or round edges – all having different names. But despite their long evolution only five classic shapes had been developed by 2008.
Skynasoars have included feather banners in our range from 1995, when the market was still its infancy, using our kite making experience to offer appliquéd designs – sold principally to the kite and related industries. We were quick to embrace the new print technologies when they became more widely available in 2002 .
Growing frustrated by the constant breakages of fishing whips, which at the time were the only suitable poles available, we made contact with a newly formed company in China making fibreglass fishing poles, but had also begun exporting feather flag poles to Germany. Our rough specifications form a range which they now export to more than 20 countries worldwide.
To our surprise, a design which Skynasoars created in 2009, and as product which failed to grab attention in its early years, has now joined the five classic design shapes of feather flags. Now sold worldwide with names such as the dragon, power fin, crest; it is has sharp tip, with a convex curl to the pole, to curve outwards forming three quarter circle to the pole.