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by Phillip Bryan

Mandalas are a wonderful starting point for flag designs. When the flags are flown, their radial symmetry becomes a dazzling kinetic kaleidoscope.

The word “Mandala” comes from Sanskrit and translates loosely as “containing essence”, or “completion”, or “circle”.

Many consider the mandala design to have spiritual and religious significance. Today it has become a general term for a pattern that represents the cosmos from a human’s perspective.

In flag design, a mandala refers to a radically symmetrical pattern centered at the dancer’s hands. Each flag contains half the pattern; spun together they become the whole.

For those who might prefer a name with less reach into the cosmos, it is also known as the “paper airplane fold.”

What you will need

  • One piece of silk – 72” x 45” will yield a pair of standard-sized flags
  • String – any kind can be used; my favorite is jute.
  • A yellow highlighter – to draw your design onto the silk.
  • Fabric whitener – RIT Whitener & Brightener is easy to find
  • An Iron
  • Yardstick (optional, makes it easier to get straight folds in the silk)
  • Spray bottle (optional, makes the silk easier to iron)
  • A Blanket to protect ironing surface.
  • Other tie-dye and flag-making materials: UV dyes, gloves, • a steaming bag or container, weighted cord, etc.

Before you start

Please take care to protect yourself and your work environment when creating flags:

  • When working with an iron, use several layers of blankets or towels to protect the surface beneath from scorches.
  • When working with dyes, wear gloves at all times.
  • Work outdoors or cover your floor with a waterproof material to protect from dye spills.
  • When steaming your flags, be careful to prevent combustion, and protect yourself from the steam.

Prepare the Silk

Wash the silk in hot water to remove sizing, and add whitener to wash. The whitener is strong stuff, and a little goes a long way. If you use a liquid whitener, wear gloves.

Washed and treated silk will now glow bluish white under blacklight. To see the effect, look at some untreated silk and treated silk under blacklight – it’s a huge difference.

It’s time to fold!

Work area: A nice big ironing surface is ideal. Spread out a blanket or two to create an ironing surface, and to protect the surface beneath from the iron’s heat – scorches won’t come out.

Fold the silk in half and iron the crease. Iron the entire surface if overly wrinkled. This is the shape of the final flag.

Tip: Move the iron perpendicular to the fold so the silk doesn’t slide around. Use a spray bottle of water or your iron’s steam setting to slightly dampen the silk and speed up this process.

Any dye applied to one layer will seep through to the other, resulting in a matching pair of flags.

Fold a paper airplane

The mandala will appear to spin around your hands if the center is placed at the “handle” — the place where you hold the flags.

For many people this is about 2/3 the way down the lead edge. Mark this point with the yellow highlighter.

The highlighter is usually not visible after dying the flags, so we can mark the silk with our design.

Fold the silk as though you were making a paper airplane, centered on your point.

  • Fold each of the two sides from your center point in to meet.
  • Then fold the two sides in again.
  • Finally, fold the piece in half.

Since silk tends to stretch out when folded diagonally, a yardstick can help keep it in place while you fold the fabric.

You now have a wedge.

Warning: If you have cats, watch out. Sliding the yardstick through silk is absolutely irresistible to them, and they’ll dive in to attack, forcing you to start over. Put them in the bedroom for now.

Tip: Silk can be slippery, making it a challenge to fold neatly. When you first start making flags you might have difficulty keeping the fabric folded in the wedge. If you pin some clothespins along the edge, the fabric will stay together.

After creating a few sets you’ll have a feel for the silk and won’t need the clothespins anymore.

It’s time for the ties!

Use the highlighter to mark your design. There are endless possibilities here.

For this design we’ll draw a zigzag. See how the silk is divided into triangles? When unfolded they’ll become diamonds centered on the handle.

Folding pleats across the silk is one way to control where the dye goes. “A simple back and forth with your fingers, folding the silk down the marker line, creates a nice effect.

After you’ve pleated a line, tie a knot around the pleat line. I make my knots snug, but not tight. This knot will prevent the dye from spreading from one part of your design to the next, creating a barrier between areas and colors.

Repeat the pleating for each of the design lines. If you used clothespins earlier, remove them now.

It’s time to dye!

Workspace: Use a table that you don’t mind getting messy. Drips are inevitable, so work outdoors or cover your floor with plastic.

Important: Wear gloves whenever working with dye. Purple glowing hands might look cool in the club, but they aren’t good for your health.

Lay down a couple of paper towels to soak up excess dye, and then lay your silk on top.

When you start adding dye, start with the lightest colors first and work your way through the darker areas. For a cool dimensional effect, saturate a color area with a weak concentration of the dye, and then sparingly add a stronger concentration of the same color.

Tip: You can also use this multi-layered approach with different colors that blend together well. For example, saturate an area with a weak blue, and then add some green to give a turquoise blend.

Work your way across the silk and fill in all the sections.

Wipe any dye off your hands before handling silk, and flip the whole thing over so you can work on the other side.

Apply colors on this side to complete cover the silk. Using the same colors as on the first side will give you a symmetrical design. After applying all the dye, examine the areas around the knots to see if you’ve missed anything.

Steam the silk, rinse, carefully cut the knots, and open the silk to see what you’ve created.

Dry the fabric and cut in half to get two matching flags. Sew in your weights, and you’re ready to fly!

Phillip Bryan

Author Phillip Bryan

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Kathryn says:


  • Could you clarify the pleating instructions? I can see the zigzag lines there, and I can sorta see the end result. My guess is that the pleating brings together a vertex of the zigzag and the opposite side of the cloth, and then that the tie folds the cloth so that the drawn vertex becomes a literal one. But I am not sure of it.

    On the other hand, I have enough cloth on its way to me to experiment. I’m just shooting for as close to the star-pattern as I can get.

    This project is my first attempt with silk and my first attempt at dyeing flags. My previous flags, my trainers, are both solid-color polyesters.

  • Maria Linda Flores says:

    I simple loved it. Que arte tan facil y bello. I am ready to look for all the materials needed and put my hands to work. Vamos a ver cómo me sale. Gracias. Thanks

  • this is AWESOME – just straight OUT OF THIS WORLD!!!!!! Never stop

  • Margarita Rodriguez Ruiz says:

    Si pusiera un tutorial se veria estupendamente, porque así no lo veo, el plegado no lo entiendo. Gracias

  • Sí un tutorial sería bienvenido