*This post contains edits 7/20/16
Dear Shipmates: Have you ever taken a good look at your sails? Do you know what they are made of? The cold fact is, sails on most historic ships have more in common with a 70s disco jumpsuit than they do with your Carhartts. That's right: They're polyester.
That's not a bad thing. The cloth is durable, resistant to mildew, and can have a look and feel similar to fabric made from cotton, hemp or flax. (Sailmakers of yore used cloth made from those natural fibers, and a few still do today.)
Now look at the stitching. If a traditional sail has a bolt rope, a sailmaker likely stitched it onto the edge of the sail by hand, perhaps using a V-9C-gauge waxed thread. The other stitching on the sail, however, is likely sewing machine thread in the *138-range of thickness. All high-quality sailmaking threads have a UV-protective coating. The stitch pattern is commonly a zigzag. Thread and stitching patterns are an important part of sail design.
A sailor who knows these basic facts about their sails is already way ahead of the game when it comes time to perform a repair. Still, there are a few other things to keep in mind.
1. Get comfortable
To begin a repair, create a workspace and have the right tools for the job.
A basic repair kit for a tall ship sailor contains:
- Sailmakers' needles at least ranging from size 14-11
- Sailmakers' sewing machine thread
- Sailmakers' waxed thread
- A thick, quality palm with a well-set iron
- Duck-billed pliers
- Sharp scissors
- A seam ripper
- Two small clamps
- A yard of sailcloth (exact same material as your ships' sails)
- One square foot of leather
- Sharp pencils
- *Scratch Awl
For major repairs, a sailor should find an opportunity to unbend the sail and take it to a wide-open place. Never drag the sail. Instead, flake it, roll it up and carry it to a surface that won't chafe the fabric. For extensive work, it might be worth removing heavy hardware such as shackles in order to make the sail easier and safer to handle.
2. How bad is it?
Before you begin a repair ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the structural integrity of the fabric?
- How long do I need the repair to last?
- What weather conditions do I need this sail to withstand?
- Is there something I could change about the rigging or the sail trim to prevent the fabric from getting torn and chafed?
- Is the damaged material designed to be sacrificial and ready to be replaced?
Synthetic fabrics can last longer than natural fiber, but they do not last forever. Sun, high winds, chafe, all work to break down the structural integrity of sailcloth. To test the fabric, insert a small needle, such as a number 18, into the weave of the cloth. Then, tug gently in *all directions. If the fabric tears easily, the sail is at the end of its life. Moreover, it may be too rotten to repair. An adhesive-backed Dacron tape (*with a peel-off backing) might be able to hold the fabric together in light conditions for a time. However, I've found adhesives do not always bond well with sailcloth designed to look and feel like natural fiber.
3. Know what a good repair looks like
This is a little bit of a harder tip. So, I will tell you what's right about the repair pictured above. First of all, as the caption says, the patch is big enough to cover the damaged area and then some. Depending on the repair, you might want to build a patch that is two to eight inches beyond the area of damage. When possible, design the edges of a patch to overlap the sail's panel seams where there are two layers of fabric. That will make the patch stronger. *The finished edges of the patch should be parallel with the seams of the panel it is protecting. (In some instances, a repair may require a panel replacement. Panel replacement is recommended when the sailcloth around the affected area is structurally sound. In the instance of the repair pictured above, the 11-year-old sail was losing structural integrity and at the end of its life. In addition, while high-quality polyester sailcloth can withstand a certain amount of chafe, a chafe patch made of abrasion-resistant fabric, such as the one pictured, can further protect the sail).
Those red dots in the photo are push-pins pounded into the shop's hardwood floor. I don't advocate pounding anything into the deck of your ship. However, the pins are from the "get comfortable" stage of repair work. The less the sail moves while you're performing a repair such as this one, the easier it is to apply the patch. At the same time, the pins stretch the fabric flat, which gets rid of wrinkles and any "belly" shape it may have.
If your patch material is a woven fabric, you should position the weave of that patch so it is aligned with the weave of the old sail. Woven material stretches differently depending on which direction you pull it. So, aligning the weaves will help the patch stretch in the same way as the material beneath it.
Fold or use a hot knife to heat-seal the edges of a patch to prevent fraying. In the photo above, my coworker traced an inch-wide hem and then used one of our bronze creasers to fold along that line. She then used double-sided seaming tape to stick the patch onto the sail to secure it long enough to get through the sewing machine. When possible, you could also use a stapler for that same purpose or, in some cases, clamps. If you have no means of sticking the patch in place, trace the edges of the patch onto the sail as a "sew-to" line and then use "strike up" marks in order to indicate the position of the patch on the sail. Strike-ups are two small lines drawn perpendicular to the patch hem that begin on the hem and run off onto the sail. Aligning those marks will help you keep track of how you want the patch to lie as you sew it, either with a machine or with a flat stitch by hand.
When hand stitching, choose the right thread and stitch-spacing for the job. Making the stitch holes too close to one another, or too large with thick thread, can create a "tear along the dotted line" perforation around your repair. *A good rule of thumb when hand-stitching is to use nine stitches per needle length (#16 needle).
4. More isn't always better
Even tall ship sails are designed with performance in mind. Performance doesn't just mean speed. It means the ability for your sails to take you where you need to go in the most effective way possible—and the ability to maneuver well under sail means a safer ship.
When a sailor layers patch over patch over patch, they are affecting the performance of their sail. Is it a deadly mistake? Probably not. However, a proper repair can make a big difference in the performance, longevity and aesthetics of a sail. Mastering the ancient skill of sail repair work should be a point of pride for any tall ship sailor. In conclusion, not more patches: Better Patches. Not more stitches: Better stitches.