NATICK, MASS. — AFTER weeks of dirty snowbanks, salt-sprayed cars, and gray skies, Betsy Pyne, like other winter-weary Americans, longs for a hint of spring. Real flowers in the garden are still many weeks away. But for now she has found a cheerful substitute: a decorative banner, featuring giant purple crocuses appliqued on a bright yellow background, to hang above the front door of her family's home in Norfolk, Mass.
Standing amid hundreds of colorful banners in a shop called Old World Flag in nearby Natick, Mrs. Pyne looks at her just-purchased banner and says happily, ``I'm putting it up this afternoon. Everyone on my street will know what I'm thinking about.''
Pyne, who received her first banner from her husband at Christmas, is the first one in her neighborhood to display a flag. But in scattered regions across the country, eye-catching 3-foot-by-5-foot designs like hers are becoming a more common sight, adding a splash of color and individuality to front porches, patios, and decks. Patterns depict everything from holidays and seasons to special events and family celebrations.
``As far as decorating the home goes, this is a relatively inexpensive way to express yourself,'' says Lane Mabbett, owner of Old World Flag. ``People are very careful about what they choose. They spend a lot of time deciding. They want to be sure it says something about themselves.''
This week, as Valentine's Day approaches, hearts and cupids have replaced snowflakes and snowmen as the most popular motifs in the Northeast. Soon banners bearing spring bouquets and birds will appear, followed by designs welcoming summer: sailboats, lighthouses, and Fourth of July firecrackers. Later pumpkins, cornucopias, and turkeys will herald autumn and Thanksgiving. Wreaths, angels, and carolers remain perennial favorites for Christmas, which is the most popular holiday for displaying flags.
For special celebrations, wedding bells tied with pink ribbons announce a marriage. And a banner with a teddy bear proclaiming ``It's a Girl!'' heralds the arrival of a baby.
Even family pets sometimes star in banners. Charles Simpson of Wayland, Mass., is commissioning a flag bearing the likeness of the family's golden retriever. Another family in Coronado, Calif., had a picture of their dog Tepper appliqued onto a banner reading, ``Tepper's Place.''
The tradition of banners ``goes way back,'' according to Katherine Ward, owner of The Flag Center, a manufacturer in Richmond, Va. She explains that a New Jersey firm, Annin and Co., included Christmas and Halloween banners in its 1905 catalog. But the current popularity of decorative flags began less than 15 years ago, she says. Flags are most common in the Southeast and New England, Ms. Ward finds, and in resort areas of California and Utah.
``They've just grown tremendously in the last three years,'' adds Mr. Mabbett, whose customers live as far away as Arizona and Montana.
While most flags are for residential use, a few businesses also find them clever attention-getters. At Harvey's Hardware in Needham, Mass., a banner featuring tools reads: ``Our 40th Year.''
Some designers use 200-denier nylon, the material traditionally found in American flags. Others prefer a heavy-duty, weather-resistant broadcloth of cotton and polyester. Although most patterns are appliqued, less expensive banners may be screen-printed. Whatever the technique, flags must be double-sided, since both surfaces are visible.
Prices range from $30 to more than $100, depending on the materials and complexity of the applique. Most average around $60 or $70.
To keep costs down and allow more variety and creativity, many enthusiasts stitch their own banners. Andi Clark, who teaches adult-education workshops on flag-making in Needham, estimates that a home-sewn flag costs between $12 and $15, depending on the number of colors used.
``The cost goes down after that because you can use remnants in other flags,'' she says.
Molly Shaw, another Needham resident, makes about 10 flags a year to decorate her family's split-level house. ``You don't have to be a great artist because the designs are so simple,'' she explains.
Beyond opportunities like these for artistic expression and individuality, Ivah Simonds, a sales associate at Old World Flag, sees another benefit in banners. In many homes, she says, ``It's a big family decision - `What are we going to hang next?' The kids get involved. Anything that does that these days is very good.''