If you see a flag fluttering outside Buckingham Palace or Windsor Palace, it may well have been made by Flying Colours Flagmakers of Knaresborough.
It’s been a successful business for 27 years now, but Andy, 58, was in a flap when he first had the idea. He was unemployed and needed to support his young family.
As a boy he’d loved skiing and been good enough to be invited to train for Great Britain, but his father thought O-Levels were a better idea. Andy did, however, ski for Yorkshire, mostly on plastic slopes as the snow didn’t always oblige.
After school he set himself up as a travel agent, picturing all the free skiing. That worked up to a point, but he moved on. A spell in financial services wasn’t happy (“a nightmare, I couldn’t do it”). Wondering how to find work, he took the family dog for a walk.
“I saw a tatty flag flying on top of a garage, and thought, ‘Why’s that tatty?’,” he says. “My wife, well she’s my ex-wife now, was a good sewing machinist and I said, ‘Can you make a flag?’ And that was basically the start of it.”
Andy struggled to work out how to make flags and source the patterns and materials. Other flagmakers were cagey, but the MoD eventually offered good advice.
Now he employs around 15 people in a family business supplying all those places you never stopped to think might need a flag running up.
As you can imagine, the Queen gets through a fair few, or the royal household does. Andy’s company started making royal flags in the year 2000. After they’d supplied a few, he asked about a more official relationship.
The conversation as recalled by Andy went like this: “Can we have the warrant now?” “No, you can’t.”
More years and flags passed. Then Andy was deemed fit for royal approval. Forms were filled, paperwork submitted.
“Then you get that lovely letter saying that you’ve been granted, you have to sign this and sign that,” says Andy.
While The Crown is a high-profile gig, Andy’s company is no stranger to screens big and small. Their flags have appeared in films such as X-Men, The Death of Stalin, Fast & Furious 9, and on TV in the BBC drama Gunpowder, and even The X-Factor.
Oh, and downstairs as we talk, 140-odd printed flags are being rushed out for Miss World.
Andy has been making royal flags for The Crown from series one. “All the flags in the drama are made here,” Andy says.
Series three has just started on Netflix, and now they’re on with flagging up series four. The flags are all historically correct, based on research by the TV company.
“We give them our flaggy brief to go along with their research,” he says.
Andy’s advice usually relates to the practicalities of how flags hang. He won’t say what flags are being made for series four, as it “may give some of the plot away” – although a look at the history books might do that, too.
The top end of Andy’s work lies in the union flag. “What we are is a traditional, proper flagmaker,” he says. “We can get a roll of fabric, we can cut it up and we can make a union flag from cut pieces of red, white and blue. It means that we’ll construct the flag and we’ll manufacture the flag. We’re constructing it like you would a house.”
He also prints flags digitally but says “a Rolls Royce flag is a sewn union flag”.
A recent edition of the ITV programme Made In Britain features Andy’s company. He can be seen cutting out a traditional union flag. Such flags are sewn in one room at his small factory, where machines whir and clatter, while the digital flags are printed next door.
Outside the sewing room is a rack containing thousands of patterns – nearly 190 for a Union flag alone. “The team can’t make a union flag without a pattern,” he says. “They need it so they can see what’s going to happen.”
The patterns tie to the many types of union flags around the world, from ensign flags to the naval jack. The flags are sold internationally, with business in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand.
He is proud of his royal connections. “It’s such an honour, this is the head of state, it’s the Queen, it’s fantastic. We are manufacturing flags for Her Majesty and for all her properties.”
One of the trickiest is flown at Windsor Castle on Garter Day. It is, Andy says, the largest union flag in the United Kingdom to fly on a flagpole – 38ft by 19ft.
“It fills the courtyard outside when they unfurl to see if it’s been made properly. It’s such a huge thing, all the girls are doing is sewing loads of fabric together, then we’ve got to go outside and make sure everything is right and in the correct proportions. It’s massive to make.”
The longevity of a flag depends on location, with a salted, wind-battered flag left out in all weathers on a splintered pole likely to wear out soonest.
“They can last for years and years, and we encourage everyone who purchases a flag from us, keep your eye on the fly end – the flappy bit – because once that starts to fray...”
He pledges to repair damaged flags for free. And do people take up his offer? “Some do and I’ll tell you who are the biggest, the Palace.”
He also makes flags for the Royal Yacht Britannia, now out of royal service and moored as an attraction at Leith.
Hanging on the ceiling of one workroom is a flag from the yacht’s operational days – a white ensign from the engine room. “They sent it back for repair, but it was covered in grease and had holes all over the place,” says Andy. They didn’t want it returning so he thought he’d kept it rather than throw it away.
The seas often supply work and super yachts are a growing market. “We do a lot of super-yachts. The great thing is when they’re in St Nelson’s Harbour in Antigua, they’re all looking at each other’s flags.”
These mega-rich owners like to follow naval traditions, displaying the flags once needed for identification. These flags indicate where a super-yacht is based, where’s its headed, all shaped by a code of signals – “26 letters and then ten numerals and some substitute flags and an answer pennant. That makes 40. It’s for decoration, but it looks fantastic… very nautical.”
They also kitted out with flags the Sir David Attenborough, the new polar research vessel named in honour of the TV naturalist. That’s the one that isn’t called Boaty McBoatface (as suggested by a public poll, although one of the autonomous underwater vehicles it carries was so christened).
Another large commission was for the closing ceremony at the Calgary Olympics of 1988, while Yorkshire’s cycle races have been good for bunting business, too.
“The only place we haven’t got a flag yet is on the moon. There’s plenty on Everest, Kilimanjaro, the Antarctic and the Arctic, and we did have a table flag on a submarine that went into one of the deepest trenches.”
There are flags of all size and colour here. There are Army flags, the skull and crossbones, personal coats of arms, the flag for the House of Commons yacht club, Catalan flags, Ugandan flags – all just waiting to flutter in the breeze.