"How much?" I asked incredulously. The man patiently repeated the price, and I must have stood there with my mouth open for a long time before I finally stammered that I'd let him know.
It was fitting-out time, my trawler was hauled for bottom paint, and I'd asked a little sail loft near the boatyard to give me a price on a set of weathercloths. Weathercloths, by the way, are those lace-on cloth panels that you often see on sailboats to enclose the aft lifelines into a bit of wind protection, and that's exactly what I wanted. The forward edge of my flybridge is well-protected, but I wanted a weathercloth around the aft railing to cut down on the breeze that whipped through occasionally. For the price, I could have built a solid teak enclosure.
I pondered this over the next few days while looking at professionally sewn canvaswork on other boats, and I decided that there wasn't anything too terribly difficult about the project. Though certainly no great shakes as a seamstress, I managed to do a workmanlike job even though my biggest project to date had been hemming a pair of pants. Since that time, I've added a dozen other canvas items to make my boating easier, more comfortable, or safer. Here are some tips to help you do the same.
First, when referring to canvaswork, it doesn't mean you'll be working with the stiff canvas that faced sailors in "Mutiny on the Bounty." Canvaswork is simply the nautical term that refers to nearly everything made of cloth around a boat. You may be working with modern synthetics that are of gossamer weights, but it's still called canvas.
You don't need a professional sailmaker's sewing machine for most projects, either. Your domestic machine will do just fine, although you'll have to go slowly and be patient (I have an elderly Sears machine). Before you start any project, make sure your machine is well-oiled and adjusted. Check the teeth on the pressure plate that feeds the material under the needle. If they're worn, you might want to consider replacing them for a few bucks, although some machines allow you to raise them slightly to provide better flow of heavy materials. Every sewing manual lectures you to "keep the correct tension" on the bobbin and upper thread, but I've found the only way is to practice a few seams on scrap pieces of fabric. You'll have to fiddle a bit to get even stitches on heavier fabrics, but it's worth the trouble.
You'll be using heavier thread than normal, and I've been using a polyester thread with good luck. It seems to last a lot longer than Dacron in sunlight, and it's springy enough to keep from breaking in spite of my occasional clumsiness.
Choosing a material will be a function of what you're making, what you can find in your area, and how much you want to spend. Modern treated canvas, often under the Vivatex or Permasol brand names, is mildew resistant and often used for boatcovers. It will shrink slightly (2 percent) when wet, so leave a little extra if you're planning a snug fit. Acrylic fabrics, with a popular brand being Acrilan, are easier to sew than canvas, resist fading and mildewing, but are less chafe-resistant and about twice as expensive as canvas. Spinnaker cloth is a very lightweight and stretchy nylon fabric that is fine for many uses, but be sure to reinforce it carefully to prevent tearing. It's also harder (at least for me) to sew because it's so slippery.
The only specialized tools you'll need beyond a sharp pair of scissors and a tape measure would be dies for installing grommets, snaps, or Dot fasteners if any of those are needed on your project. I have a Clinch Fast kit, made by Time Saver Tools (6806 Indianapolis Blvd., Hammond, IN 46324) that has been worth its weight in gold! Using vise grip pliers, it has dies to set dozens of different snaps and grommets of all sizes, which are included in the basic kit.
The best advice is to spend some time practicing with scrap cloth, and not just straight seams. Try doubling up some hems, or adding a reinforcing patch, and try turning corners.
Now for some thoughts on projects, although I suspect you'll discover more than you have time to create. My weathercloths were a fairly simple first project, because they were essentially flat panels without any tricky notches or gussets. I made a butcher paper pattern to get the size right and also to make sure it wasn't going to look awful on my boat. I chose an off-white Acrilan which I cut about four inches larger than the actual size, leaving enough for 2-inch hems on each side. Once sewn up, I used the Clinch-Fast tools to install grommets every 8 inches, and then I simply laced the weathercloth to the stainless rail with light line. It's lasted two seasons and looks like new, but now I'm thinking about a modification. It blocks my vision of one corner of the stern, so I may remove the weathercloth and install in it a see-through panel of Plasti-Pane, the material that sailors use for windows in their sails.
My next project was an awning for the cockpit. Again, it was fairly simple because it was simply a large rectangle of cloth, although I chose to add some PVC tubing battens that required the addition of pockets sewn across the sail. It took some care to join the panels so there weren't puckers, but I pinned them together carefully and used one hand to feed the material under the needle. I chose a pale blue spinnaker cloth for several reasons: light weight, easy stowage (it folds into a small bag), and easy to sew. Again, I left enough space for a wide hem to reinforce the grommets in the corners, and the pockets were simply pieces of the same material that were 2 inches wider than the battens. Now that I've become a connoisseur of awnings, I've noticed that all sorts of things are used for battens, including PVC tubing, wood strips and even collapsible boathooks!
Once the cockpit was cool, I decided that a wind scoop was necessary for the forward hatch, to help the breezes cool the cabin. Because I usually anchor on a single hook which keeps the bow into the wind, I designed a spinnaker cloth "box" the size of my forward hatch, but with the front side cut away to scoop air. To support it, I run a line from the bow pulpit through a grommet on the top of the scoop, and then to the flybridge.
I did find, however, that it was excellent not only at scooping wind but at scooping insects, and I soon undid all my careful stitching to install a screen. I used plastic screening from a hardware store that I sewed across the bottom of the scoop, and I now have bug-free breezes.
My mother still thinks I have trouble sewing buttons on shirts (I do), but I've gone on to add a cover for my anchor winch (Acrilan, with lots of odd shapes, but worth the effort), covers for my flybridge instrument panel (no more heat crazed instruments) and compass, and a big duffel bag to store my dinghy outboard (no more oil stains in the locker). I also made Acrilan covers for the two forward hatches, and a wrap-around Acrilan cover for the forward cabin windows (tricky to get right).
The point is that it doesn't take a Betsy Ross to whip up some good-looking canvaswork for your boat, and it doesn't cost a fortune to have it custom-made. You'll save money, and have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. But don't tell my mom I can sew.