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Sewmanship--How to become a God of Sunbrella

5779 Views 20 Replies 14 Participants Last post by  dadio917
There's a good deal of cloth on a boat besides the sails. We take it for granted until it needs to be repaired, renewed or replaced. Then we need smelling salts at the first price quote.

A great deal of cloth, indeed: Covers for mainsail, hatches, winches, binnacles, grab rails, dinghies, outboards; sheet bags, cockpit shade, biminis, dodgers, and belowdecks, well, my boat has 16 installed cushions.

The thing is, most of us can splice a line, tune a rig, and don't hesitate to dive into the 12v system with a multimeter. But a rip in Sunbrella? A rotted tiller cover? Call the Coast Guard immediately.

I, too, was a member of this hapless club of the fabric-challenged, protected only by my checkbook from the merest tear or inevitably aged-out sail cover. However, I am no longer. I have Recovered, in every sense, and now go house to house issuing pamphlets urging you to do the same--to cast off ignorance and fear, welcome into your lives the sunshine of a sewing machine, and become the fully functioning yachtsman that destiny always intended.

Here are four parts on "Sewmanship", beginning with the selection of the machine that will change your life:

Sewmanship 1-the Sewing Machine - Blogs - EY.o Information Exchange

Sewmanship 2--Covers for Dinghy, Hatches, Pedestal, Mainsail - Blogs - EY.o Information Exchange

Sewmanship 3 - Cockpit Shade, Main Hatch Cover, Interior Upholstery - Blogs - EY.o Information Exchange

Sewmanship 4--Line Bags, Seat Locker, Grab Rail Covers - Blogs - EY.o Information Exchange


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Nice job.
Thanks for this, very encouraging to a doofus like me. We already have a mid century Singer machine that weighs more than a Corolla.
Woah far out. Duck is the heviest i have ever tried when I buy a boat I will remember you fondley.
Awesome thankyou!
My wife has a lot of sunbrella aboard and has made a bike bag, grill cover, cockpit cushion covers, hatch covers and on an on. She seems to enjoy it and she really has the boat looking great. I think it took her 15 min. to make a winch cover that look great and fit like gloves.
Nice work.

Yup, BTDT. Currently going through the dodger and bimini enclosure replacing glass in all the panels using my Sailrite machine. Someother projects include dinghy cover for our CD10, seat covers for my dad's toon boat, extension cushions for the salon settee, patching the bimini at wear points, custom curtain for our Ericson, interior and exterior cushions for our Pearson.

Here is the latest panel I sewed. 6 more to go.

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Very nicely done. If I may offer some tips:

Learn how to help the cloth through the machine by pulling gently on it as it goes under the needle. You can also stretch the cloth some as you're sewing it. Techniquish, I know, but if you learn how to do it you can get rid of the puckers which is more a function of the way a drop-feed (opposed to walking foot) machine pulls cloth under the needle.

If you're deconstructing an old piece to use as a pattern, instead of ripping the seams, just cut along the seam and remember to add 1/2" (or whatever you use) as a seam allowance after you trace it out.

When you rip seams, pick one side or the other. Every five or so stitches, cut a stitch, proceeding to the end of the line. You'll then have one side with cut stitches every five or so, and one side with an intact row of stitches. Go then to the intact side, and grab the intact thread, and pull that out, which pulls the cut bits out. You'll have less chance of ripping the cloth, and longer thread bits for less mess, and it's actually a bit faster.

You might want to mention the way needles work. Needle size and thread optimum combinations, as well as needle systems.
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Thanks for the tips Christian and Multihull Girl! I made lots of stuff with a home sewing machine, and recently upgraded to a Sailrite, and wish I did it long ago. I'm self taught, and your tips are giving me all kinds of ideas about how to do things more quickly and easily.
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One of the tips I learned is to use a stapler to baste the cloth before sewing. Much easier and faster than pins. Less blood too! I also use basting tape for attachment of eisenglass panels to the Sunbrella. Flat binding can be used on the opposite side to give a nice finished look.

A good starter project is to build fender covers with the boat blanket kit at Sailrite.
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Thank you Christian for this post.

This is one thing that I always had to hire out.. but how do you start?
I have never done this, so after my homework, do I buy a recommended machine, a piece of cheap heavy canvas and sew away?

Can you recommend a good basic 101 book on canvas work? Is this s good one?

Canvaswork and Sail Repair: Don Casey: 9780070133914: [email protected]@[email protected]@[email protected]@[email protected]@51zBBbKdxsL
Start with simple projects. Fender covers, cockpit awning, pillows, sheet bags, etc. It takes a lot of practice to get good. I have been sewing for years but have not really gotten much better until this year. The videos on are invaluable.
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Great tips, MG. Why didn't I think of just cutting when deconstructing....

And sure, you can teach yourself. Not sure you need a book--you can Google any question, sewing is a vast world on the Net. Sailrite videos alone are a Great Courses regimen, and free.

What's hard is judging whether you're going to enjoy the work, and therefore whether to spring for a walking-foot sewing machine right off the bat. My 1963 Singer 237 is amazingly robust and uncomplaining. The only thing it won't do is sew through five or six layers, which you only encounter occasionally, as when a triple hem meets another hem at a corner.

It would make you laugh to see the punishment the Singer will take--"come on boy!" as I get a running start, haul on the cloth, and ram fat hems like a Greek trireme in attacking the Persians. Why they advise "all metal gears".

But looking back, I do wish I'd bought a sailmaker's machine. Did not know at the time how useful basic machine sewing skills would be, not just on the boat but in house and garage.

To predict personal enjoyment in sewmanship, a personality test is in order. Gotta like machines, enjoy details, be capable of patience in the cause of pride of accomplishment, and hate knowing nothing about something. If you tend to put on a seventh coat of varnish just because it feels right, or if your eye if offended by tiny things nobody else notices, or if you are a customizer by nature, your pathology may align with yacht sewing. Congratulations--I think.

One thing I missed when starting to learn to sew was a grandmother. They used to know all this stuff, and could teach you.
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The canvas house I worked for at one time had a Pfaff 130 for sails and a Pfaff 138 for canvas. My sailmaker has something like four Pfaff 138 machines.

I have a 138. Although I'd take my 130 with me because it's more portable, I have to say I rather like the 138's longer throat area. Both machines will punch through just about anything I put under their needles.

Another tip: replace needles OFTEN. A dull needle makes for difficult work.

I've posted elsewhere on the Net on how you can hot-rod an old machine by adding springs to the pressor foot shaft and installing more aggressive-toothed feed dogs. I know you can get these parts for Pfaff machines and I would expect you can find the same for Singer. Henderson Sewing Co. is a good source for old machine parts.

Books: the Casey book above is good, as is Karen Lipe's BIG BOOK OF BOAT CANVAS. Both are available from
My hat's off to anyone with the patience to do all their canvaswork using Sunbrella :) I know I'm going against the grain here, but in the long run you can save yourself a lot of work going with a material like Stamoid, doesn't require the amount of hemming that Sunbrella does, you don't get the buildup of thickness at corners, etc...

For more intricate projects like dinghy chaps, that might require a bunch of cut-outs, Stamoid will require much less work, you can simply make the cut-outs without having to hem or bind the edges...

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Stamoid is a coated polyester/vinyl product so it does not ventilate, as Sunbrella will. That may affect your rationale for cloth choice
The machine seemed to know it and began to hum fast and true, the tough polyester thread running fast off the big spool, the chattering canvas pouring steadily forward into finished piles and the birds chirping admiringly from the window.
I'm sure it will encourage a few newbies to try it out.
I broke down and bought a Sailrite machine a few months ago. Here are some comparisons, and further thoughts on sewing:

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Well, for the amount of time I spend sewing, my '60's Japanese Nelco has been sufficient.

Here's one of my "products":

Also the bimini in my sig.

I did the tinboat cover outdoors to simplify fabric wrangling. Another trick is to make a mock sail loft by setting up a ladder on the infeed and outfeed at the level of the table. A large project can then be rolled to the needed seam and laid on the ladders to ease fabric handling. (I agree on the staples for basting.)

The synthetics are all MUCH easier than cotton canvas. To get started, pick up an old machine and an old sail or sail cover and make a bag or two. Keep fiddling until you get a good locking stitch with even top and bottom tension.
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