A Ukrainian flag, made by billows in the wind outside McCarthy's Enterprise and Central Maine Wreath in Skowhegan on Thursday. Maine Stitching Specialties made the flag. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Tammy Locke moved from one station to another at the Maine Stitching Specialties factory on Thursday.

She carefully placed the bright blue and yellow nylon under the sewing machine needle.  Tap-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap-tap. Locke used blue thread to stitch a hem onto the fabric, one of several detailed steps that eventually resulted in a Ukrainian flag.

“It’s challenging and exciting,” said Locke, who has worked at the Skowhegan business for nearly five years, but has shifted her focus to stitching Ukrainian flags in recent weeks after it saw a surge in orders. “It’s more than just sitting here and making a product. We’re proud that we’re doing something for the Ukrainians.”

Maine Stitching Specialties has made nearly 1,600 Ukrainian flags this month, in addition to other products it makes, such as American and Maine flags and dog accessories, owner Bill Swain said. Swain and his wife and co-owner of the company, Julie Swain, recently donated $5,041, or 20 percent of the purchase price of the flags, to World Central Kitchen. This is most of the profit that their company makes on the flag orders, Swain said. They picked the nonprofit because its volunteers are on the ground in Ukraine and neighboring countries, providing meals to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

Ever since people caught on — through social media, news, Google ads and word of mouth from patrons — orders for the flags have swelled, Swain said. In the last week, about 500 orders have come from Mainers and customers across the country wanting to support Ukraine. Once they’re shipped out, the Swains hope to donate another several thousand dollars, he said.

It all began when Ambrose “Tom” McCarthy, an area business owner, stopped by Maine Stitching Specialties a few weeks ago. He asked if they could make him a Ukrainian flag.

“I want the biggest one you can make,” Swain remembers he said.

About 26 years ago, McCarthy sponsored an exchange student from Belarus who was attending Skowhegan Area High School, he said. The woman, Yulie, now lives in Florida, but her parents are home in Belarus, protesting the invasion of Ukraine, McCarthy said. He still keeps in touch with Yulie, who he calls his adopted daughter.

“I told him [Swain] that you better get some extra fabric,” he said. “These things are going to be a hot item. This is a good country of good people being destroyed by a tyrant.”

A 5-by-8 foot flag billowed in the wind outside McCarthy’s wreath and contracting businesses on Thursday. The colors represent Ukraine’s bright blue skies and golden wheat fields.

Maine Stitching Specialties’ 10-person staff is working hard to keep up with the Ukrainian flag orders and other items, including American, Maine state and 1901 Maine state flags; dog accessories; and insect- and tick-repellent gear for people and pets. The business also makes hotel draperies and hospital privacy curtains.

When Swain first called his fabric supplier company, New-York based Glaser Mills, he ordered one 100-yard roll of each of the blue and yellow colors and assumed he’d have fabric leftover. Maine Stitching Specialties was in the process of making American flags to build their supply for the spring and summer, when sales typically increase and visitors stop by the facility and Renys stores to purchase them.

“We still haven’t been able to get completely caught up with orders because of supply problems,” Swain said. “My supplier ran out of the appropriate yellow. I ordered the yellow of the Spanish flag, and it was almost orange.”

The business continues to stitch smaller-sized Ukrainian flags, but it’s waiting on more yellow nylon fabric to clear the orders for larger sizes. During Swain’s last order, his supplier told him he purchased the last two rolls of fabric, but more is being manufactured. An order will likely arrive early next week, Swain said.

The Ukrainian flags, available online and at Maine Stitching Specialties, range in price from $15 to $52, and they come in four different sizes.

In 2021, the business made 2,000 American flags. Three months into this year, 1,800 American and Ukrainian flags have been made, Swain said. He estimated that the company would reach 4,000 flags by the end of the year, thanks to the popularity of the Ukrainian flag.

“It was just seeing how many people were having to flee,” Swain said about the decision to make the flags and give earnings to an organization benefiting Ukraine. “Hardly any country would be prepared to accept that kind of volume of people on short notice.

“We just thought, ‘Who could handle taking millions of people without help?’ We just wanted to do what we could to support them.”