Sails…aren’t they tough as old boots, used to rain, wind and sun, designed to withstand unbelievably strong forces? Yes, they are – but it is because of the rugged life that they’ve led in Windermere weather that we have to take special care of them now if we want to extend their lifespan well beyond their original makers’ expectations.
Our oldest sail in the collection belongs to 1934 17ft Windermere yacht Dawn. It dates from the year of her launch and still has its original sailbag. Other absolute beauties also survive from the 1930s – all made by prestigious sailmakers Ratsey and Lapthorn of Cowes.
Now we are taking a museum approach to their preservation, bearing in mind their greatly increased fragility due to years of exposure to light, moisture and dirt. We called on accredited textile conservator Michelle Harper to advise us, knowing that she’s worked on HMS Victory’s sails, so is used to challenges on a grand scale. Michelle ran a sail surface cleaning workshop in our space at Brockhole Visitor Centre and kept a very close eye on us while we laboured under her tuition. We were really pleased with the results which will help us move on with a ‘deeper’ clean of more of the sails in the collection but struck just the right balance between removing more recent soiling while keeping evidence of historic use.
We used ‘smoke sponges’ and old fashioned elbow grease rather than water, but will also be sending Dawn’s classy 1949 sails away to Michelle for tests in preparation for a specialist conservation wet clean. The 1949 set will then be on display in our new exhibition space in rotation with the 1930s set to avoid excessive light exposure.
Right now, our newly trained staff and volunteer team can’t wait to try out new skills and clean the rest of the sail collection. It may be rewarding, but cleaning with the smoke sponge is also really hard physical work, so we’re not even going to try to calculate the total sail area that still needs our attention!