Sails: are they as robust as they look?

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.

Fine craftsmanship on Dawn's 1934 2nd foresail
Fine craftsmanship on Dawn’s 1934 2nd foresail – and evidence of wear

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.

Ratsey and Lapthorn stamp on Dawn's 2nd foresail 1934
The Ratsey and Lapthorn stamp on Dawn’s 1934 2nd foresail

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.

Training from Michelle in how to use a smoke sponge to remove surface dirt
Carefully supervised training from Michelle in how to use a smoke sponge to remove surface dirt
A successful tissue paper sausage can be a dangerous weapon...
We also practised the best packing methods for sails and sail bags. A successful tissue paper sausage can be a dangerous weapon…

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.

Michelle and Dorothy working on Dawn's 2nd foresail from 1934
Conservator Michelle and Volunteer Dorothy working on Dawn’s 2nd foresail from 1934 in the display space at Brockhole

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!

Astrid working on one of Dawn's 1930s sailbags
Volunteer Astrid working methodically on Dawn’s 1949 sailbag

One thought on “Sails: are they as robust as they look?”

  1. Really enjoyed reading this and loved the pictures of the old sails with the original stitching. I love canvas, and although I’m not a sailor, I use it for lots of things including hand-painted floorcloths. Using sail cloth, diluted PVA glue (rabbit-skin glue was used in days gone by) and water-based paints I fit the cloth to any space, stapling it down around the edges, then shrink it taut with the dilute glue, then apply a coupla coats of acrylic primer, then paint on my design using emulsions or acrylic paints, then apply several coats of varnish. My kitchen flooring is a floorcloth and is immenseley hardwearing and has been enduring lots of footfall for years, including several housefulls of dancing people at parties. Once a year I get down on my hands and knees and give it a good scrub with a scourer and apply another coat of varnish and it’s good as new again. Just mop it clean. I learnt this technique years ago from Jocasta Innes, paint effects guru and have used it ever since. I could come and run a workshop if you like 😉
    Love your space and will visit when next up in the Lakes.

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