Sailcloth – Cradle to Grave

(in time cradle to cradle)

We are often asked what is a sail and what is made of ?

Many books have been written on the subject and sails have been around for hundreds of years, but we thought we would set out a few details below so our customers and window shoppers can learn a little about the life of sail.


I stand to be corrected, but all sails have always started life as a thread or fibers.  Whether this be woven flax and then Egyptian cotton in the early days or highly advanced carbon fibre and tape layering, it is still a mass of thread or fibre (flax is a plant by the way).

As the world moved on cotton was soon replaced by polyester and ‘Dacron’ was born.  Dacron was a brand name that went generic (a bit like hoover) and has been around since the mid 1950s.   If you want to find an old ‘canvas’ sail or cotton sail, pop down to the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth where you will see (and smell) what remains of the sail from HMS Victory from the battle of Trafalgar.

Moving forward a couple of decades the 1970s and 1980s saw the introduction of laminated sails, which revolutionised sail making.  In essence, it allowed the woven Dacron to be sandwiched, which not only meant that it kept it shape, but allowed it to bend, but not stretch.  It was manna from heaven for sailors and sail makers, but needless to say, polyester thread sandwiched between laminate has, ‘I will never biodegrade’ written all over it.

Until we came along, no one I know had begun the process of actually trying to recycle sail material.   Yes, we are all upcycling into new products, but ultimately that material will have to be disposed of and that is where we will eventually provide the ultimate service for sails.

I am writing some more about our plans for recycling sails proper, but in a nutshell our aim is to reach a stage where we never need to throw another sail into landfill.

Anyway, back to the lesson :)

Move on a few more years and along came nylon fibers known as Aramids and again a popular brand has almost become generic, namely Kevlar.   Kevlar sails were lighter, but this is never enough and another fiber soon challenged them and you may have heard of brand names such as Spectra which are polyethylene fibers (again, not exactly environmentally friendly) and then along came a spider (sorry I just wanted to say that).

The market then changed again with what we are all now familiar with, carbon fiber.  And this is where more advances are taking place.  So much so that the technology behind sailmaking is spreading beyond the marine industry and into traditional solid products, such as skis and light aircraft.

There are others, but these are what you see in most sails, from boats to windsurfers, to kites it will be one of the above fibers.

The Making of a Sail

Sails are now made by highly advanced computer driven laser guided machines.   Even the machines that make the actual cloth are state of the art Nasa esq machines.   By way of example, North sails (one of the largest sail makers in the world) have recently completed a machine that cost millions of dollars and is the only one in the world.  Just to make sails.   Indeed, sailmakers now hang from trapeze above sailcloth to work with it  (see the North Sails machines and woman sail maker hanging above).

There is a mass of information about sail design, but to keep the lesson short in time for play, 3D modelling, pressure testing, wind tunnel testing, stress and strain tests, load tests, masses of computer data analysis and much more all goes into the making a sail.   Think Formula 1 racing design and you would be close.

Sails come in all different shapes and sizes.  Spinnakers (from which we make bunting) are lightweight and in turn come in various thicknesses or ‘weights’.  Windsurfing sails are often made with a monofilm laminate over the sailcloth, which will delaminate over time and render the sail useless for upcycling purposes.

Where we differ from others is that we can and do make other products.  In short, we innovate!  Just as sailmakers and sail manufactures are innovating so must we to deal with the leftover product.

So…. from strands all fed into a machine comes a roll of fabric that is then traditionally stitched together.   A typical sail will have more layers of sail cloth laid out in a strengthening position for specific parts of the sail, namely each corner.

The Art

We love sails, they are truly works of art and the top racing sails being made today are modern masterpieces.   We bear this in mind when we rescue sails from landfill, incorporating style and design in keeping with the sail into our upcycled products.

Cutting through sail numbers creates a dramatic effect and sail makers logos can often be incorporated within a design.  The natural design of the sail in panels lends itself to creative design when cut at angles, the original stitching is often more striking than a number or logo.

In time we hope to be able to strip sail cloth down to its fibers and resell it back to sail makers.

The Grave doesn’t have to be landfill.

And now check out our Return on Investment Scheme