DIYdiy projectspast & present

Past & Present: Nautical Flags + DIY Beach Bag

by Maxwell Tielman


Nautical, as a general theme, has hit the design world hard in recent months. Whether it’s with the sudden abundance of blue and white striped tops, porthole windows, or a bizarre cultural obsession with knotsit seems that being a land-lover is suddenly so passé. Of all of these seafaring trends, though, we have to say that the one we are most enamored with is nautical flags. We first started coming across design-world adaptations of these classic maritime signals at this year’s National Stationery Show. Then, when Amy found these lovely bracelets featuring the flags, we became hooked. The flag tipping-point, if you will, we suddenly had an insatiable urge to incorporate them into all aspects of our lives. What isn’t to like? With bold, geometric shapes that beg to be repeated in all manner of patterns, nautical flags are perfectly suited to any number of design and do-it-yourself applications (goodness knows we love us some geometric patterns). As much as I loved the flags from a purely aesthetic standpoint, though, the boyscout/history nerd in me wanted to know more. They sure are cute, but where did they come from? What is their raison d’être?


Image from Brown’s Signaling, 1916.

Nautical flags have historically been used, in addition to torches, telegraphs, and shields, as a method of communication between ships that are too far apart standard methods of verbal communication. Depending on the flag used and the manner in which it is waved, nautical flags can be used to convey any number of messages, from warnings of explosives aboard to requests for medical assistance. As it turns out, the use of flags as part of maritime communication, especially for military or mercantile purposes, has been in existence for millennia. Although its use and complexity has changed significantly over time, historical documentation finds signal flags in use as far back as Ancient Rome, where red flags and cloaks were used for naval communication.

For centuries, there was little regulation and standardization for maritime signaling and, as such, it was oftentimes difficult for ships from other fleets or countries to make use of the method. Over the course of recent history, though, numerous attempts have been made to create a cohesive, standard language for ship-to-ship signaling. The first real attempt at standardized naval flag communication originated in 1665 when King James The 2nd, at that point the Duke of York, established what came to be known as The Duke of York’s Code. Although the exact code established by The Duke of York has been lost in the murky waters of history, it is generally agreed that it it was based on the 26 letters of the alphabet. Despite the fact that many officers within the English Navy at this time were unable to read, the code proved useful for creating a range of signal patterns.


Above image: A transatlantic ship’s dinner menu featuring nautical flags. Image via The New York Public Library.

The United States Navy followed England’s example with the introduction of a very similar code in 1795 and a dictionary of codes in 1816. Despite the code’s alphabetical organization, the range of possible signals made for a highly complex system of communication. At one point, the dictionary for flag signaling held upwards of 13,000 definitions.

It wasn’t until the later half of the nineteenth century, however, that a true universal code was established. Created by the English government in 1856 as The Commercial Code, it came to be known as the International Code and remains in existence (with some minor alterations) to this day. With the advent of the telegraph and more sophisticated radio and satellite-based forms of communication, the reliance upon flag signaling has understandably diminished over time. The flags are still in use, though, and come in handy in the event that other methods aren’t functional.

Like braille, morse code, or star charts, nautical flags are yet another functional form of communication and organization that has been adopted into design for its aesthetic beauty. Although divorced from their original function, the signals contain the look and feel of  mathematic universality, making them attractive additions to many a design.

To celebrate this historic method of seafaring communication, we decided to impart a bit of signal flag flair onto a canvas beach tote using handmade rubber stamps. Here’s the quick tutorial!



  • A canvas tote bag
  • Speedball Speedy Carve Blocks (in 6×12)
  • An ink roller
  • A utility knife or similar blade
  • A woodblock carver
  • A pencil
  • Acrylic paint (technically, you’re supposed to used water soluble paints with these materials, but acrylic or fabric paints allow your bag to be machine washable)


1) Cut your 6×12 block of Speedball Speedy Carve into 2-inch squares.

2) Draw signal flags onto each square with pencil. We used this Wikipedia page as a reference.

3) Using your utility knife (and your carver if necessary), cut out the negative space on your squares. It helps to cut into the rubber at an angle and with opposing slices. This way, you can pull out “triangular” strips and can avoid excessive carving.

4) Once you have your stamps cut, roll acrylic paint onto them with your ink roller. You can just place the stamps directly into your paint, but the roller insures an even spreading of paint and keeps the paint from getting into the receded parts of the stamp.

5) Stamp a pattern of your liking onto your tote. Allow to dry.

6) That’s it! Go get you and your stylish new bag to the beach! It’s too hot out!


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