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NRC Science Protects a Patriotic Symbol

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The Canadian flag we know today was born in 1965. After a lengthy search and much debate, the red and white design with a single red maple leaf in the centre became our national flag, affectionately known as "The Maple Leaf."

Soon after the Maple Leaf began flying, however, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson grew concerned that the flags on federal government buildings seemed to be fading unequally and were not the same shade of red. An effort led by the Department of National Defence to ensure all Canadian flags met the same standards became an issue of national importance, with many government departments getting involved in the project. National Research Council scientists stepped in to help make sure the Maple Leaf looked its best.

Setting the standard for a national symbol

Canada's flag is a single piece of fabric. This means the red sections of the flag are dyed onto the fabric, making fading a concern. Depending on the fabric used and the length of time spent outdoors, early flags quickly became discoloured – white areas turned grey and red sections turned everything from pink and orange to many shades of rust and red!

Canadian Flag 
Canadian Flag

Colour experts at NRC specified the exact shade of red for the Canadian flag by using a research-grade spectrophotometer (which measures light and colour) to determine the exact colour of a sample flag provided by Prime Minister Pearson. Researchers then proposed specific fade-resistant printing dyes and nylon taffeta fabric for the flag to make sure future versions would look the same and fade more slowly and evenly.

Determining details

Canada still has a National Flag Committee with members from industry, textile testing labs and various government departments. The committee regularly reviews Canada's flag standards to make sure our national emblem is always at its best.

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The Interdepartmental Study Group on the Canadian Flag laid out standards for more than just the flag's colours and fabric. When the "Standard for the National Flag of Canada" was published in 1966, the committee had outlined specifications for everything including dimensions, grommets, material, cordage, sewing thread, wooden toggles, brass clips, laundering and flag disposal procedures.

There are actually three different sets of standards for the flag: one for outdoor use, one for indoor use and one for flags that are to be used only once.

In 1970, NRC adjusted the flag's colours once again to meet new international standards.

Reducing wear and tear

Flags are exposed to some pretty harsh conditions while outdoors. Rain, high winds and strong ultraviolet rays from the sun can damage fabric and fade colours. In 1965, newspapers reported that the flags on Parliament Hill needed to be replaced every two days!

NRC researchers have spent a lot of time testing how Canada's flag stands up to different conditions. To test how different red dyes faded, six flags were hung on a clothesline atop an NRC building in Ottawa in 1965. Passers-by were rather puzzled by the odd arrangement of flags, which were later moved to traditional flag poles.

Seven flags are subjected to varying wind speeds in NRC's propulsion wind tunnel. 
Seven flags are subjected to varying wind speeds in NRC's propulsion wind tunnel.

More recently, wear and tear tests have been conducted in NRC's wind tunnels to determine which fabrics and stitching methods were most durable. Researchers also looked at which materials required the least amount of wind to be able to fly – they called this the "flag flutter frequency."

Thanks to tests like these, scientists have been able to extend outdoor flag life to at least 30 days – a dramatic improvement over the mere two days Canada's earliest Maple Leaf flags lasted in the elements.

Fixing national colours in other countries

NRC's flag research has helped other countries protect their national colours as well.   After setting the standards for the Maple Leaf, NRC's researchers were approached by other government officials to conduct similar research for the flag of the Bahamas.