Our presenter for this Technical meeting was Pete Ripley. Pete trained as a traditional sailmaker in the UK before branching out into big boat rigging and, until recently, operations management for WA’s tall ship, Leeuwin II.  However, he has to earn a living, so he also applies his skills to the management of industrial heavy lifting projects and (more recently) to the development of an innovative exhibition marquee design.  You’d think that this would be enough for one person, but no!  Pete also makes sails for many of Australia’s tall ships.  This was the subject of his presentation; tall ship sail making; tools, methods and materials, traditional and modern.


The presentation commenced with Peter explaining some of his background and how he came to arrive at this career. He commenced by pointing out that having been born in 1970, he found himself with the advantage of being able to see many of the old ways disappearing as the new ways came on the scene in this industry. He quickly found, through work experience in an office environment, that the indoors was not for him and the alternative of being ‘chucked’ into a sail loft (as he put it) was much more to his liking. In this environment, he gained experience with the Alan Bond team through the period of the America’s Cup defence activity in Fremantle in 1987. Here he learnt of more modern sail making techniques and funding required to support such adventures! He noted that these boats had a set of sails for practice and a set of sails for the serious racing. The racing sails generally lasted only three races before they were suitable for salvage only and a new set had to be made to replace them. His other activities in these earlier years included the Pelican Point Sea Scouts, which he remains associated with and several years at sea as a watch leader on the Leeuwin II. Pete then realized that if he was to seriously pursue traditional sail making, he would need to go abroad to learn the trade. He ventured to England where he joined the James Laurence loft in Essex. Here he found that there was a lot more money in Europe to support traditional sail making with its associated high content of expensive hand sewing. The industry was buoyant and the traditional skills very much still available for him to learn. He compared this with Australia where a high proportion of the demand for traditional sails comes from a small number of ‘not for profit’ entities such as sail training organizations which have very limited funds.

 After three years at James Laurence, he received a call from Chris Blake, the master of the, about to be launched, Endeavour replica. Pete returned to Perth to complete the sails and rigging of the Endeavour. He related how construction of the standing rigging using polyester was well advanced when it became apparent through experience that the stretch in the polyester rope required constant tightening. It appeared that this constant tensioning of the rig would ultimately put too much stress on the mast. Over a period of only two months leading up to the maiden voyage, the entire rig was replaced with manila.







A few years later, Pete made a further 15 sails for the Endeavour and this was followed by 21 sails for the James Craig. In the late 1990’s the Duyfken was also launched in Fremantle and Pete has made sails for her and then there was the Leeuwin II as well. More recently he made sails for the British sail training for the disabled vessel, the Lord Nelson, when she visited Australia. So over a number of years, Peter has established himself as a very capable traditional sail maker, well known by those who need to know and sought out by many traditional ship owners across Australia.

We clearly had the right man for this presentation so let the presentation begin!

Pete divided his talk into segments focused on the key elements to the trade such as sail cloth materials, ropes, sewing threads and sewing machines as well the techniques for designing, constructing and repairing traditional sails.

 Sail Cloth

Normal sewn sails are made from Dacron but this is too hard for sails on traditional vessels which are manually handled much more than on modern yachts. Traditional vessels generally use Duradon, a polyester material that is softer than normal Dacron sail cloth but is still light in weight relative to other materials and is water resistant. However, these sails are large and in one piece are not light weight. Pete gave an example of a square sail on the James Craig which is 21 metres wide and 12 metres high and weighs 170 Kg.








Other alternatives are cotton and flax. The sails on the ‘J’ boats are still made from Egyptian cotton. This is fragile to make and requires a lot of care and attention in use to avoid very fast deterioration. Flax sails are easier to make but absorb water to three time their weight and also rot very easily, but are the choice for very traditional vessel such as the Duyfken. Notwithstanding, if flax sails are well looked after they may last up to eight years whereas if they are regularly left wet they may not last more than a few months.

All of these cloths suffer in the UV but this can be managed by use of a ‘sun cloth’ which is stitched to one side of the square sail and rolls over the top of the sail to protect it once it is furled on the yard. This prevents the sails becoming 3DL – three days left!






Another aspect to consider is the weight of the cloth. There are several different standards by which the weight of sail cloth is rated. The oldest system is the RN or Royal Naval system which is 200 to 300 years old. Cloth will be denoted RN4, 6 or 8 etc with the largest number being the lightest weight. Alternatively, the sail makers ounce is a system only 150 years old. A sail maker’s ounce is the weight of fabric 28.5 inches wide and 36 inches long. Sail makers ounces are also known as US ounces. Cloth may also be measured in ounces per square yard known as UK ounces, (the flax used on Duyfken is 18 UK oz). Finally, there is the Dernier system which measures yarn weight. One Dernier is equal to the weight of 9000 metres of silk worm yarn measured in grams. By way of example, stockings are 10 Dernier, leggings 200 Dernier and backpacks 1000 dernier.

On the bolt, sail cloth is usually 54 inches wide and has a ‘warp’ that runs with the roll and a ‘weft’ that runs across the roll. Cloth is available with equal warp and weft or various ratios of unequal warp and weft. Generally, the square sails on traditional vessels are made with equal warp and weft but unequal warp and weft material is used to advantage on to enhance the shape on racing sails.

Sail Design

Selection of the appropriate sail cloth varies with the type of sail of traditional vessels. Generally, the square sails are made from Duradon which is softer on finger nails when furling and the fore and aft sails are made from Dacron. In the case of exceptionally traditional vessels such as the Duyfken, the sails are made from Flax. There is only one world supplier of Flax and often there are small defects in the material off the roll so a thorough check of the stock before commencing manufacture is essential.











Square sails are made flat and generally not shaped. The panels run vertically so that the maximum load (vertical load) is on the panels and not on the stitching. Attention needs to be given to provisioning for load transfer at the corners of the sail and along the edges. Various designs of clew patch – multiple thicknesses of sail cloth tapering out to the single layer of the body of the sail – are used in the corners. A Rutgerson eye (worth looking at or a brass ring sewn around with a brass ferule swaged inside is then used to attach the rig to the sail corner.  Bolt ropes may be one of three alternatives used widely on traditional vessels. Hemp and manila are natural fibres which have been around since the heyday of such craft. The modern, look alike, equivalent is Roblon which is made from a polyester fibre.










Pete also outlined two other features which are often designed into square sails. A strengthening middle panel of sail cloth running from bolt rope to bolt rope prevents any tears in the sail from going further than halfway down the height of the sail. The other feature is a bunt cloth on the fore side of the sail containing eyelets to accommodate a ‘bunt line’. This is used for furling the sail without going aloft. The Lord Nelson has 8 bunt lines per sail.

 Sail Threads

If you are contemplating machine sewing on traditional sail cloth you will need to use a three stranded UV stabilized bonded polyester thread. Pete uses Coats Dabond which comes in a range of thicknesses denoted by V207 to V69 and is about $35 for 2 Km. For hand sewing on flax one needs to use flax thread which needs to be handled with care as it can break very easily. Prevention can be assisted by waxing the thread as one goes. Other threads used for hand sewing the more modern materials include Dacron V462 and Solafix PTFE 2700 Denier thread for sewing such things as Dacron shade sails. Pete noted that in the old days, the strength of sails was important with respect to ‘staging’ potential breakages. The top gallant was made so that it was the weakest and therefore the first area of the rig to break in a storm. These days, the whole rig is very strong and catastrophic failure occurs wherein the whole rig fails.

Tools and Fittings

Pete passed around a number of essential tools used by a traditional sailmaker including good quality Wiss scissors, the smooth handle of which is also used for rubbing down seams. A sailmakers palm and a traditional oiled Egyptian cow leather FID as well as a heavy mallet and a ‘T’ bar thread tightener were also in his collection.









Notable in the fittings department was the clew iron, a large fabricated stainless steel frame that is sewn into the clew of sails too large for normal Rutgerson eyes or brass ferule type eyelets mentioned earlier.

And then of course there is the essential piece of equipment – the sewing machine.

Pete had some good and some bad stories to tell but we will keep them for another day. He has and still uses some of the following; Singer 132 which does straight stitch only, Bernina 217, Adler 166 and an Australian made Cordes.







Here Pete gave us some practical advice about tension setting for these machines with particular reference to the bobbin. The tension on the bobbin spool should be set so that if one holds the bobbin vertically on the end of the thread, the bobbin should just fall under its own weight.

 Pete finished with a short explanation on software available for sail design tasks. Mention was made of Sailcut, a free computer software package which he has used in some of his work.

 ABBA thanks Pete Ripley for a very informative evening and some very valuable practical tips for those of us who aspire to do some of our own canvas and perhaps sail making work. –  thanks Pete.