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—if 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— 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—meaning the motor is attached to the table rather than the sewing machine head—a 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 (www.sailrite.com) 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]
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—which, of course, you will protect with a perfectly tailored canvas cover.
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