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Diary of a Sailmaker’s Apprentice

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March 11

Last week, my co-workers led me from the sewing machines to the hand-stitching station where I learned even more new words. The sailmakers in our loft are known for high-quality handwork, which is somewhat of a dying art. Many factory sails are completely machine-sewn. We hand-sew hardware and chafe gear onto sails. Above, I affixed a “straight leather” to a bolt rope. The thread is coated in wax and we finish that running stitch with a “hot blob.” There are electric hot knives that hang from the ceiling in all areas of the loft. You reach up, grab one, hold the tip to the end of the thread until it melts and then press the molten goo down into a blob with your thumb. I was afraid of burning my thumb but didn’t tell anyone because that seemed wimpy. It didn’t hurt as much as when I stabbed myself with a needle and bled over my stitching sampler. The trick of the hot blob is to melt without burning. A charred hot blob is a no-no.

I also learned to sew brass rings onto a sail. If you look at my rings below, I can point out what’s wrong with each of them. The starboard one was so bad, I gave up halfway. The goal is to tack on a number three gauge ring with precisely 18 stitches. The fabric weakens if you puncture more holes around the ring than that. With the rightmost ring, there are already 12 stitches even though I still had a lot left to cover. The midships ring is better. However, the stitches are too close to the edge of the ring and they are “pinwheeled” as opposed to perpendicular to the center. You may remember pinwheels as a fun toy. In sailmaking, they are bad. The port ring is the best of the three, but as you can see, not yet perfect.

Perhaps the most important skill of hand stitching, however, is good posture. As I bend over my work, you might see me, all of a sudden, jerk straight upward. Usually, it does not mean I have stabbed myself…again. It means I have caught the warning glance of a co-worker, or have heard the voice of my mother in my thoughts, “Sit up straight!” Unlike in childhood, however, the admonishment carries a heavy weight. An injury could mean painful work, or no work. Mom, maybe you should visit.

Bonnie Obremski

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