ALL ABOUT RECYCLED SAILCLOTH
Resource, Review, Remark... Reefer
Recycled sailcloth is a fantastically versatile fabric, both durable and rich in character. It can be upcycled into many different roles but it is important to understand a little about the fabric to fully appreciate its suitability for a particular use.
With over 20 years experience of handling sailcloth and performance fabrics our Technical Director Mark Turner has produced this quick guide to recycled sailcloth and how to care for your Reefer product.
If your query isn't answered by the information below Mark can be contacted here.
What is sailcloth?
Traditionally boat sails were made from cotton, canvas or other natural material. The harsh environment experienced in marine use meant that very quickly sails were treated with a variety of proofing techniques to extend the lifespan.
For the last 50 years or so the majority of marine sails have been made from Polyethylene Terephthalate, (PET), the same material used to make plastic drinks bottles. It's better known as polyester and isn't biodegradable. The oldest known sail we've recycled was one stamped by the sail maker as manufactured in 1962. It was still in great condition which does highlight the environment impact of a popular leisure activity.
'Dacron' and 'Terylene' are both familiar trade names associated with polyester sailcloth, developed as a durable replacement material to the cotton & canvas sails of old. Those traditional sails are long gone, although we do see the occasional one turn up which usually joins our 'keep for something special' collection.
Sailcloth is impregnated with a number of resins during manufacture to stabilise the material mechanically, to waterproof and to guard against mildew and ultra violet light degradation. These resins along with all the metal fittings and other materials sewn onto a sail mean it's not a simple process to recycle it like plastic bottles which often end up as polar fleece fabric. So old sails usually end up destined for landfill. We're doing our best to reduce or at least delay this with our 'upcycling' into new roles.
Sailcloth is woven in different densities for different applications. Kites, spinnakers and paragliders use lightweight 'rip-stop' cloth, dinghy sails, hang glider and microlight wings use lightweight dacron, cruising yacht sails heavier weight cloth and so on.
Not every weight of cloth is suitable for every application. Lightweight colourful cloth looks great but we don't use it for deckchairs without a backing cloth because both cloth and seams are likely to fail spectacularly in use. An issue ignored by opportunist 'copy cat' companies at their peril!
Because we recycle sailcloth from so many different applications we can usually lay our hands on material of the right weight and colour for any bespoke application.
These days polyester is still a popular choice for cruising sails but wings, kites, windsurf sails and racing sails have moved on. Weight, dimensional stability, air permeability and longevity are the primary reason why more exotic materials are now employed in these roles.
Paragliders, kites and spinnakers are generally made of nylon rather as it is more resistant to U.V degradation. Windsurf sails use monofilms not just so they can see where they are going but also because it is more dimensionally stable. Racing sailors use carbon/kevlar blends, often with custom computer designed and laid load path reinforcement to guard against stretch.
We can recycle most of these fabrics but it's fair to say monofilm windsurf sails are usually too brittle to resew and paragliders & spinnakers are usually worn out, ending up as pet bed filling. Composite cloth (carbon, kevlar or mylar coated sailcloth) look great but all deliminate quickly in any application where they are subject to abrasion, extreme stretch or regular flexing.
Logos and insignia
One of the most interesting parts of the sail is the original sail number, class logo or or other insignia applied to the sail. Traditionally the insignia would be contrasting sailcloth hand or machine sewn round the perimeter. The advent of sticky backed Dacron sailcloth these days means that most insignia is now stuck on and only occasionally perimeter sewn. Some series production class or manufacturer logos are screen printed (such as the Laser dinghy logo).
We are occasionally asked why our products don't always contain a part of the original logo. Not every sail has insignia applied and on those that do only a small percentage of the sail area will be covered, so only a few products we make from a particular sail will feature such detailing.
Perimeter sewn logos and sail numbers look great but are very time consuming to design, cut, apply and sew. We can apply replica insignia or sail numbers in stuck and sewn or direct printing techniques which are much more cost effective.
We are often asked if we can make a nautically inspired bespoke item by interior & garden designers. Whilst we're usually happy to assist, old sails do have some limitations which you need to know about for these specialist applications. Don't expect them to be unblemished, old sails carry the scars and stains of their previous role and they will often be mildewed, rust & oil stained, patched & faded.
If you want the item to look brand new we can also manufacture from new sailcloth & awning fabrics, which we often keep in stock.
Sails aren't always flat. Marine sails are often created from shaped panels by the sail maker to deliberately build in 'fullness' - a three dimensional shape which is more aerodynamic and literally catches the wind better than a flat sail. Perimeter 'bolt' ropes and 'tabling' are often gathered to increase the cusp of the sail. Why is this relevant? Because although they look great as garden shade sails, old sails can't be pulled drum tight and will flap in a breeze. The fullness also means when it does rain, although not waterproof, a shade sail will collect rainwater in its centre and won't shed the water off an edge. So they are a temporary fair weather shade device, not an all weather shelter.
Old sailcloth isn't waterproof, and often has holes in it! Not tear holes, but metal grommets and lines of stitching all let water seep through. We can reproof sails to improve water resistance and can often find a sail with a minimum of metalwork but no sail is completely waterproof. They do dry incredibly quickly though.
Sailcloth like many fabrics suffers from the effect of ultra-violet light (U.V). When left exposed to the sun for extended periods (months not hours!) the fabric will start to stiffen and most stitching will eventually rot & fail. For that reason we don't recommend using sailcloth for permanent outside features, these are much more appropriate from new awning fabric which we can source in a variety of colours. Mildew can affect sailcloth, especially the adhesive used on the double sided tape used to lay up the original panels. It is almost impossible to remove and should be considered as part of the character of a recycled product.
If you're thinking of drapes, blinds, curtains or upholstery sailcloth has a very serious limitation. It is VERY flammable. As such old sailcloth needs to be professionally fireproofed and batch certified to be used in any of these applications. This restriction applies to beanbags too and is one reason why we've temporarily dropped our popular beanbags from our product range. Mark just isn't happy with the compromise to aesthetics and costs of fireproofing old sailcloth. If you see a sofa or beanbag elsewhere made of genuine old sailcloth be very suspicious of its fireproof credentials. Likelihood is the local Trading Standards Officer will be very interested to talk to whoever made it! Our beanbags will be back, but this issue is our greatest headache, especially when other companies appear less diligent.
Our products are really easy to keep clean. Simply hand wash with mild detergent, scrubbing stubborn marks with an old toothbrush. Then rinse and drip dry, which won't take very long.
DO NOT machine wash, this can lift printing and sticky dacron logos.
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