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Diary of a Sailmaker’s Apprentice


hungadungaMarch 6

I know it may be hard to tell, but in this very photo, I am hunga dunga-ing.

See those black thingy-dos on the rolled up part of the fabric? You guessed it: Hunga dungas. I hope you’re saying this word out loud. It’s the best thing since “baggy wrinkle.”

OK, I’m sorry about the hype. A hunga dunga is just a piece of PVC pipe that keeps the fabric from coming unrolled. The roll makes it easier to feed the fabric through a sewing machine.

In other exciting news, I sewed a seam between two panels of Dacron in a relatively straight line. That’s good since I was worried I might not be capable of such a feat, at least not on my first go. The thrill lessened only slightly after I practiced for five hours.

As the day drew on, my stitching improved and then worsened when fatigue set in. The last time I exercised such extreme concentration for hours on end might have been when I took the GREs six years ago. Just imagine instead of filling in a circle to respond to a question, you have to fold the test into the shape of your answer.

Today, if my seams are straight, I will graduate to constructing a small sail for someone in town.

“But we won’t put our label on it,” my coworker explained. “Well, you know, unless it’s good.”

Challenge accepted.



March 8

I’m sure everyone can see there’s something wrong in this picture. The above is the result of two things. The first is, my bobbin ran out. A bobbin is not a mythical creature from Middle Earth, even though it may sound like one. Still, it can be just as diabolical. A bobbin is the spool of thread that feeds from the underside of the material you’re sewing. There is a second spool of thread, that feeds from the top and runs through the sewing needle. It is easy to see that one. That spool is large and lasts a long time. The bobbin, however, is a small spool and runs out frequently.

The sewing needle performs a hypnotic dance, weaving back and forth like an adder in a snake charmer’s basket. Meanwhile, Bilbo Bobbins leaves on an unexpected journey and you suddenly realize you have a trail of half stitches that, in a sailmaker’s world, is the making of a story worth repeating: “Remember when Bonnie’s bobbin ran out and she didn’t notice?”

I soon discovered the reason that mistake was such a big deal. It’s the time-consuming nature of fixing it, which brings me to the second reason the seam in the photo looks like a teenaged boy’s first attempt at repairing a favorite T-shirt. You have to run the fabric through the machine a second time and make sure the needle goes through every hole you already punctured. More holes are unsightly and weaken the material. I could barely sew in a straight line the first time. Aligning the needle to the tiny holes stitch by stitch, well, it’s a word that rhymes with stitch and begins with a “B.”

As I keep practicing, I am training my eyes to glance behind the needle, akin to checking the rear-view mirror of a car. I am also training my ears to listen to the rattling parts of the machine, for subtle changes that indicate my bobbin is nearly empty. I left the loft Friday afternoon exhausted, hanging my clipboard on its nail. The clipboard has lists of skills I must learn. At the top is “seaming.” I can hardly check it off, but at least I know what seams are. After that, however, are a string of tasks written in a foreign tongue. I can’t wait to speak sailmaker. I think I’ll be cool then, and running out of bobbin won’t make people feel as though they’ve “pulled a Bonnie.”

Bonnie Obremski

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