Barbara Dabney, founder and owner of Freedom Flag and Banner, uses flag sales to gauge the mood in Miami.
In 1997, she said the Florida Marlins mascot showed up out of costume during the playoffs to request a custom banner in anticipation of a World Series victory.
In 2000, she helped Coconut Grove resident Ron Snizek design a “banana republic” flag that represented his feelings toward then-Miami Mayor Joe Carollo after the raid on Elián González’s relatives' house.
Following 9/11, Dabney said her workshop was so busy meeting orders of up to 400 flags a day that she missed most of the TV coverage during that time.
“Every time there was a major happening in the world, we were like a barometer,” Dabney said.
Things are quiet for now, she said, but there’s no telling which countries will be represented on any given day at custom flag retailer Freedom Flag and Banner.
In the workshop behind the store, bolts of fabric in every shade of the rainbow surround employee Mercedes Largaespada as she snips excess fabric from the Union Jack stripes on the upper left corner of a Cayman Islands flag. Over a large communal sewing table in another corner of the room, Margaley Cremata hums to herself as she runs stitches over a pinned fabric that forms part of the Croatian flag’s coat of arms.
Dabney reckons she has made flags from more than 300 countries and territories in the 28 years since she started Freedom, including projects for individuals and organizations including the Marlins, cruise companies and the Disney corporation.
“You just never know who’s going to walk through the door,” she said.
Some of the most intricate flags have been her most memorable.
“There are little animals and stars and rings and certain colors,” Dabney said. “All the details are important. It’s the creative process of making a symbol, somebody’s symbol.”
In 1989, Dabney opened shop in the back room of her industrial fabric business in Opa-locka with $147.50, which she used to buy a grommet machine and a projector for enlarging and tracing patterns.
She said she decided to make flags because sewing was a hobby and she enjoyed the artistic process of helping customers with the designs and then piecing them together.
Although she has an MBA and prior experience selling industrial fabrics, Dabney said that she had to write her own rule book for running a small business.
“It’s not a nine-to-five job,” she said. “You’re cleaning the toilets and washing the windows and doing whatever needs to be done.”
Dabney also had to hone her flag-making expertise through experience.
“There’s not really one right or wrong way to make a flag,” she said. “We often sit here and brainstorm about how we’re going to put it together. Through the years, we’ve experimented with different fabrics that work well in South Florida with the wind and the weather.”
Since then, Dabney has moved to a 7,500-square-foot facility in North Miami and expanded to 16 full-time workers, including graphic designer Catherine Booth.
Before working with Dabney, Booth designed T-shirts and mouse pads but wasn’t interested in flags.
“Now when I drive on the highway,” Booth said, “I pay attention to all the flags I never paid attention to before.”
In addition to custom-made flags, which make up about half her revenue, Dabney keeps an inventory of flags made by other companies in stock. Last year, Dabney said she sold more than 33,000 American flags.
A pre-printed 3x5 American flag will cost about $10; a simple U.S. flag of the same size made in-house might cost around $75. Custom-made flags cost more, depending on the intricacy of the design and labor involved; some have been in the $600 range, for example.
While U.S. flags are her top sellers, especially from Memorial Day to Veterans Day, there’s also a strong demand for flags from Cuba, Haiti and the Caribbean islands.
In her stockroom, Dabney keeps flags from 193 United Nations member countries — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe — as well as state flags and Florida-specific flags. She also carries specialty items including Pride flags, Olympic banners and Confederate flags.
Dabney considered whether to stop selling the controversial Confederacy symbol after the targeted attack on a black church in South Carolina, but said she decided to keep it in stock as a historical flag. They sell one or two a year, she said.
“I have a few teachers that bought them to show in class, but we just don’t really have the demand,” Dabney said.
At the end of the day, Dabney said her role is to provide a service to people, regardless of their beliefs.
“You sit in the store long enough and you see people come in and they have to tell you why they’re coming in,” Dabney said. “I feel like I’m doing therapy here all the time because it is emotional.”
Whether she’s making a flag for a celebration or a funeral, Dabney said, “it’s a positive thing. You’re doing something that will be appreciated. It’s going to be a meaningful symbol at the event.”
Freedom Flag and Banner
Owner: Barbara Dabney
Where: 13870 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami; 305-981-9996;
Years in business: 28
Number of employees: 16