Sailors Should Sew - SailNet Community
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Sailors Should Sew

For sailors, the nuts and bolts holding our "engines" together are twisted fibers' thread. Yet how many of us own a complete compliment of wrenches, screwdrivers, and perhaps even snap-ring pliers enabling us to deal with the maintenance and repair of onboard mechanical equipment, while our only concession to potential seam failure is a packet of rusting sail needles and a tube of thread&#151if that?

The capacity to effect a sail repair is simply good seamanship, and that alone is reason enough to learn to sew. But acquiring the equipment and skills to do basic stitchery also provide more immediate benefits. Canvas covers, bags, and awnings protect, contain, and shade. Having the ready ability to create canvas items enables a broad array of potential boat enhancements at nominal cost. And sewing has the added advantage that, like ropework, the process can be as rewarding as the end product. Canvaswork projects are a great antidote to the mid-winter doldrums.

The Sewing Machine   Almost any sewing machine will sew canvas. If you have a domestic machine sitting at home, give it a try. With a few adjustments (detailed below), you may be surprised at the capacity of your existing machine.

If you donít have a machine, what kind should you buy? For canvaswork, all you need is a machine capable of making a long, straight stitch through at least six layers of canvas. There are lots of machines that will do this, but donít take the salesmanís word. Take some 6-inch squares of canvas with you when you shop, and see how many layers you can get the machine to comfortably sew. More is better. Keep in mind that hemming two adjacent edges results in nine layers of cloth at the corner.

A perfectly-suited used machine often can be purchased inexpensively. Check commercial machine outlets and major repair facilities rather than domestic sewing centers. You donít want a machine that sews buttonholes and embroidery, and unless you plan to make sails, you have no need for zigzag capability. You are after a machine that will feed and sew a thick stack of canvas, giving you a long, straight, and tight interlocking stitch&#151 not a chain stitch!

The number of sewing jobs that have moved offshore as a result of NAFTA probably dumped a lot of heavy-duty commercial machines onto the market. If you have a place for machine with power table&#151meaning the motor is attached to the table rather than the sewing machine head&#151a really powerful machine is a joy to use.

A walking foot is also a plus. If you donít want to shop around for a used machine, Sailrite, the sailmaking and canvas supply house in Indiana ( sells a very capable walking-foot, straight-stitch machine at a fair price (as well as some more expensive machines). Sailrite, by the way, is a good source for fabric, thread, and other canvaswork supplies.

[Editors Note: The SailNet/JSI Shop stocks a large supply of fabric and accessories at competitive prices -- call the Canvas Department at 1-800-234-3220]

   Sewing machines have a number of variables, and the more of them you get exactly right for the fabric you are attempting to sew, the better the seam will be. Donít expect a machine that last stitched a nylon blouse to make a perfect seam in three layers of 9-ounce canvas without adjustments.

   Start by oiling the head. A well-oiled machine will deliver nearly all its power to the needle&#151where you need it. The manual will show you exactly where to apply the oil and how much to use.

   Use the right thread. Donít use spun polyester thread from Wal-Mart. You need stronger, smooth polyester thread. The best choices for canvaswork are either V-69 or the slightly heavier V-92 polyester thread with a bonded (rather than soft) finish.

   Next change the needle. Except for thread tension, nothing has a larger impact on stitch quality than needle size. If you are having trouble with heavy fabrics, your first change always should be to a larger needle. For canvaswork a #18 or even a #20 will be a good size. Some domestic machines cannot accommodate anything larger than a #16 needle. That limitation should prevent you from buying such a machine.

   Set the stitch length adjustment to the maximum. Acrylic canvas, like Sunbrella, tends to pucker when sewn, and lengthening the stitch will reduce or eliminate needle pucker.

   Increase the foot pressure. This is adjusted pushing down on a button or turning a knurled knob on the top of the machine directly above the presser foot. The heavier the total thickness of fabric, the more foot pressure you need. On a domestic machine, you will nearly always want maximum foot pressure.

   Adjust the bobbin tension. This is usually accomplished by turning a tiny screw on the bobbin case. As a starting point, the thread should pull out of the case smoothly but with some resistance. If it pulls freely, tighten the tension screw; if it is tight or the tension is uneven, loosen the screw.

Once you have all these settings made, that only leaves upper-thread tension, which you must adjust to suit the thickness of fabric under the foot. Using scrap canvas&#151a double or triple thickness, depending on what you are preparing to sew&#151run three or four inches of stitching, then examine the stitches on both sides of the fabric. If the bottom thread is straight, you need more upper-thread tension (or perhaps less bobbin tension). If the top thread is straight, you need less upper thread tension (or more bobbin tension). When you have the tension just right, the interlock between the top thread and the bottom thread will be buried in the fabric, resulting in separate, individual stitches&#151the same on both sides of the fabric.

What to Make   Crawl before you walk. Fold a rectangle of fabric in half and sew the sides together to form a pocket, open at the top. Hide the raw edges by enclosing them in binding tape&#151a narrow ribbon of fabric just for this purpose. Screwed to the inside of a locker, the finished canvas pocket is ideal for containing anything from pot lids to dive fins.

Tired of sitting in the sun? A basic awning is simply a flat sheet of canvas hemmed all around, with grommets pressed into the corners. Reinforcing patches where the grommets go will make the awning more durable.

Need a big bag to tote linens to and from the boat? A canvas bag is remarkably easy to make. Use a small one to develop a pattern (or take a look at Canvaswork and Sail Repair by yours truly). You can knock off bags for ice and clothes and anything else you regularly haul around.

Once you are comfortable making a seam, you can make weather cloths and wind scoops, sail covers and seat cushions, even a bimini top or a spray dodger. The possibilities are truly limitless. If you have money squirreled away for, say, an anemometer, break the piggy bank and buy yourself a good sewing machine. You will get more for your money initially, and youíll save enough in the long run to buy yourself a full set of sailing instruments&#151which, of course, you will protect with a perfectly tailored canvas cover.

Don Casey is offline  
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