ATHENS - Nancy Hilton doesn't know if she's broken any world records, but her 25-by-13-foot crocheted American flag is an East Texas wonder.
It took Mrs. Hilton three years and 97 skeins of Coats and Clark Red Heart yarn to make the hand-stitched flag. She used no pattern; it was an "if at first you don't succeed" undertaking for the retired grandmother.
"It's something that gets on your heart," she said at her home, where the flag billows from PVC pipe in her front yard. "You don't just sit there one day and say, 'I'm gonna make a big flag.' I've been thinking for a long time about what I could do to honor our military."
Her patriotism is evident. As she talks about the soldiers fighting in Iraq, her eyes begin to water.
"They are over there sacrificing their lives, their legs, their sight," she said. "I know they want to come home, to see their wives and their children, but they are serving their country."
Mrs. Hilton's inspiration to make the oversized flag came during a trip in 2003 to see the East Coast. At a souvenir shop in Georgia, the Hiltons bought a standard-sized American flag.
"I measured the blue, and how tall it was, and how wide, and how much longer the stripes are than the blue, and I kind of figured it out," Mrs. Hilton said. "I don't know, it might've taken me a hundred miles."
She crocheted in the car, until the bundle of yarn grew too big for her lap.
"When we got home, I piled it on the floor next to my chair," she said.
Mrs. Hilton designed the flag using a shell pattern, with eight stitches per shell. Each row of red and white measures one foot tall. She said one row of stitches took roughly 45 minutes to complete. In all, Mrs. Hilton estimates she spent 214.5 hours to complete the flag. If she worked on it continuously, for eight hours a day, five days per week, she figured she would have finished it in just over six weeks.
Instead, she took time to develop her crocheting ministry, The Love Stitchers. Mrs. Hilton began the ministry in 2003 when her sister-in-law, Lola, developed cancer. She said Lola devoted her life to helping the elderly and shut-ins until she became too sick to carry on and moved into a nursing home.
The Love Stitchers took shape when Mrs. Hilton crocheted lap afghans for the nursing home's residents after Lola died. She and some friends made 75 afghans. Three years later, more than 100 women in three cities have made more than 1,500 lap afghans for nursing homes, hospice centers and for veterans.
The veterans, she says, get special treatment. Mack Hilton, her husband, had two brothers who served in World War II, and Mrs. Hilton's cousin was a life-long Marine. As a way to say thank you, Mrs. Hilton and the other Love Stitchers create red, white and blue, starred and striped lap afghans for the veterans they meet.
Mrs. Hilton has made arrangements to display her flag on the Henderson County Courthouse lawn for Veteran's Day. She hopes the attention she's gaining will show America's forces that they are on her heart and mind.
"I hope that somehow, through the Internet or something, it'll get over there so the soldiers can see. I just think it'll make them feel good," she said.
For now, the flag is displayed at the Hilton's home, and they encourage the curious and the patriotic to visit. To contact the Hiltons, call 903-677-4045.