Sewing Machine
on a boat

    Galleon     Contact me.

This page updated:
November 2008

"As Ye Sew so shall Ye Rip"

SailNet - Don Casey's "Sailors Should Sew"
SailNet - Don Casey's "Sail Repair 101"
SailNet - Don Casey's "Sail Repair At Night, Sailor's Delight, Part Two"
Chris Caswell's "Canvaswork Made Easy"
Article by Ralph Naranjo in 9/2002 issue of Cruising World magazine

A complete new set of all cushions for a 40-foot boat can cost $2000 to $3500. Probably much of that is labor.

Summarized from "This Old Boat" by Don Casey:

Paraphrased from talk by Carol Hasse:

Some items learned at sail-repair class at Hogin Sails:

From a costume designer: "As a general rule, the better machines have all metal parts. If there's plastic in the machine, it tends to wear down very quickly and break easily."

From John Neal: most home sewing machines will choke/break halfway through the first serious canvas/sail work; don't use them.

From Mark Mech on the IRBS live-aboard mailing list:
A number of people have recommended the [Thompson] "Mini Walker" They are about $450 new and $350 used. It is a small basic cast iron zig zag machine, but it has a walking foot. This is very important for sewing thick, multi-layered stuff and also allows you to sew things like, naugahide and wet suit material. The machine is built like a tank. I tested one out and it went through 6 layers of thick canvas at full speed. I was impressed. ... [later] ... I just checked the "sailrite" site and their machine IS the mini Walker. You will be able to find it for at least $50 less from other suppliers. ...

A number of people say that old, cast-iron Singer machines are great.

From Allan Edie on Cruising World message board:
In the words of one sewing machine mechanic I talked to, the series 400-403, and 500-503 Singers will sew through anything that you can stuff under the sewing foot. They should run fine on an inverter. The unique thing about them is that they have all steel gear drives instead of belts. I haven't tried them as I am still looking for the right deal myself. You should be able to pick up a 400 series for about $80, and a 500 series for about $125 or so. Another possibility, a bit heavier and pricier is an old Thompson walking foot sewing machine. It should also work fine on an inverter, and unlike most commercial machines, has the motor attached, not under a table.

From Don Richards on Cruising World message board:
We found an old Singer 320K (also 306K) does a good job (around US$30) if you have an inverter. Sewing Super Store
Quality Sew
SailNet - Sailrite LSZ-1 ($700)

From RCB on Cruising World message board:
I had to buy a machine because my early efforts with my wife's light weight machine led to two trips to the sewing machine repair shop. So I was looking for something more heavy duty. The shops selling professional machines (and renting them, which you may want to try) said I needed a walking foot machine to do canvas. The trouble with the walking foot machines are their high price and inability to do zigzag stitches. Straight line stitches are fine for canvas, but I understand zigzag is the best for sails. Sailrite has recently come out with a walking foot machine that also does zigzag, at a price lower than most used walking foot machines I found available. Definitely worth checking out, but the price is still more than double what I eventually paid for my machine.

I visited sewing machine stores and talked with them about what I wanted. Try to find stores that service the machines on site as well as sell them. I found one that reconditions and resells used machines, and were very knowledgeable about the old machines as well as the new. They and others described for me the benefits of the old, all metal Pfaffs and Singers: rugged, simple, and fully capable of excellent quality sewing -- in the right hands. This was what I decided to look for.

I watched the classified ads in newspapers and the "gear for sale" section of the local sailing mags, and made the rounds of the used gear chandleries. I have heard that old machines show up at garage sales and flea markets, but I didn't try that. I'm sure some of the gear sites on the internet have them periodically too. I eventually found a Pfaff 130 in good shape, and bought it for $370.

At the Pfaff repair shop, I was able to buy a xeroxed copy of the original owners pamphlet, which was really helpful. But far more helpful was a class the store offered. Most sewing machine shops seem to offer a lot of classes, and this shop had one specifically on canvas work for outdoors. It really helped me move up the learning curve, cutting out a lot of that frustrating, trial-and-error period of learning.

I am now almost done with replacing my Ericson 41's Pacific Blue canvas (covers for main, jib, hatches, hand rails, wheel, companionway, winches and coamings) with Captains Navy Sunbrella. I really like the look, and the Pfaff has been a constant joy to use.

From Georgena Hollingshead 11/2008:
I had lusted after a heavy sewing machine to do sail making and repairs on our 44 ft sailboat but could not afford the cost of the Sailrite. A friend had told me to hunt for a Pfaff 230, 260 or 332 machine as they usually go cheap as they are not as well known whereas the pfaff 130's are quite expensive to buy. I found a pfaff 230 for $100 in good condition. They have 1.3 amp motors and use the same hook, bobbins etc as the 130's. I have sewed 10 layers of 9.5 sunbella and just finished a heavy inner foresail, the clew area was 2-10oz dacron and 6-8oz dacron which it chewed thru well but the machine was working. I then finished the tack with 1.5" nylon webbing on top of the dacron but this was very slow going and I had to have max pressure foot tension.

I find that nylon A&E (UV coated) thread lasts as well as poly and use it for the heavy work and use V69, Tex90 and Tex 105 AE Nylon. Prefer smaller needles if possible #16 for V69, #18 for tex90. The smaller sizes seem to penetrate better for thicker layers of dacron though you'll break needles. I have also used Organ #20 (1X15) needles (sailrite sells them).

If one is on a budget check out these machines, though get a service manual for it. I have totally timed this machine myself with the instructions and will change hook timing slightly to correct missed stitches depending on material thickness and thread size. If a 50+ aged woman can do this then a average mechanically minded man could overhaul and time these machines themselves.

From Rich on Cruising World message board:
I have a [Sailrite] LSZ. It works as advertized, it's well-built and heavy. The only thing I wish it had was adjustment markings, it has none. I find that if I do a lot of the same sewing it's not a big problem but if I don't use it for a while, or need to make a big change it takes a little playing around till I get the correct stitch. But hey, what do you expect for the price? I'm not in the business; it's for my own use so I live with it. The plastic case I think is a little on the light side, no real problems there either. Buy one; you'll like it. I have looked and waited for a used one but never found one for the right price. I think if you do run across one the price will be close to a new one.

From Tim on Cruising World message board:
The Sailrite machine is built like a tank. When I got mine, it shipped with a couple of test sewings. One was 6 layers of sunbrella, the other was three layers of naugahyde. The internal workings of the machine are hugely overbuilt. It's not quite the same as buying a used home machine, unless it was from the sixties or earlier.

With a cogged or toothed belt, there was no slippage as it crunched through sometimes 6 or 8 layers of sunbrella while I was doing my dodger. Well worth the bucks. I purchased just the straight stitch machine for $400. I figured the only reason I'd need zig zag is for sail work. I draw the line at doing my own sail work, except emergency repairs. So, the straight stitch machine is fine for me.

Someone made the comment that it was just a re-worked Thompson and wasn't sure why it was better. I am under the understanding that Thompson moved their manufacturing facilities from Taiwan to China. When they did, SailRite bought the old factory and went in the manufacturing business, beefing it up a bit and cutting out the middle man.

One excellent side benefit has been SailRite's excellent customer service. There was a flaw in the design of the bobbin winding wheel and mine didn't work at all. They were aware of the problem which happened on a scattering of machines. S.R. immediately shipped a new winder with re-designed mount when I called to complain. And, in case that wasn't fast enough, told me exactly what to do to mine to make it work while I was waiting for the replacement to arrive.

The new one didn't arrive in a timely fashion, so I called again. They immediately shipped another and told me if the other one did show up, not to worry about it. I'd have a spare. The other did show, so I have my spare.

Every time I have called that company, customer service has been immediate, thorough and professional. How often can you say that, today?
From Jon Eisberg on Cruising World message board:
I second that opinion.

I've had the Sailrite Yachtsman for several years now, and am very pleased with it. Seems pretty robust, and has endured some of my best amateurish efforts to screw it up. Whenever I'm having a problem, it seems that simply changing to a new needle will do the trick. Keep it well-oiled, it'll last a long time, seems to me.

Some of their "kits" appear to be a bit overpriced to me - once you get the hang of sewing small projects, it's pretty easy to make patterns and figure stuff out on your own. But, you're absolutely correct about doing business with these folks, and a lot of other vendors in the marine industry could do well to take a chapter out of Sailrite's book. Whenever I'm at a boat show, I always take the time to stop and chat with Jim and Connie - they're charming people, whose business has basically become an extension of their family. Always a pleasure to deal with, and they're extremely helpful and generous with their advice. They really do seem to get a great deal of genuine satisfaction from turning folks onto canvaswork.

By the way, for any novice out there, I recommend highly Don Casey's little book "Canvaswork and Sail Repair". It's a great starting point, very well-written and illustrated.

From Tom on the Morgan mailing list:
I bought the [Sailrite] LSZ1 early last year and have been extremely satisfied with it. I have made a complete bimini enclosure, sail covers, cabin cushions and 2 sails and have had no trouble with the machine at all. I would recommend that if you get one, make sure to get all of the little extras like the light, the zipper presser foot, and maybe that edging doo-dad as well. For the price, I thought it could have come with these, but that might be a little picky. In any case, it's by far the best machine I've ever used. Just my 2 cents worth.

From John Heinisch on the Morgan mailing list:
I stopped and talked with the SailRite people at the sailboat show in Annapolis a few years ago. And I had them show me all of their sewing machines ... from soup to nuts. I asked them to show me the cheapest and then show me the best. And then show me everything else in between. I was most impressed with the LSZ-1. It's got the most bang for the buck. It can do everything I need. And the folks at SailRite are most helpful. They are very friendly, extremely knowledgeable and they are always available to offer assistance.

In my opinion, this machine is the bees-knees when it comes to sewing boat canvas. It's a very simple machine, no frills whatsoever. It's rugged, it's bulletproof and it's up to the task of sewing anything you can imagine. It breezes right through 6 or 7 layers of Sunbrella. Zippers are a piece of cake. And it has no problems with 0.040 inch thick StratoGlass. My canvas lady loves my sewing machine so much, she's gonna buy one just to carry around in her van to use onsite at the marina rather than having to haul her work all the way back to the shop.

Besides the monster balance wheel, the other best asset of this machine is the walking-foot. You can sew virtually hands-free as the machine feeds the material through. All you really need to do is guide the material into and away from the foot.

Some things to consider ...

Upgrade: I would suggest that you spring for the LSZ-1 with the additional Upgrade Package. Get the 'monster' balance wheel that they speak about. This is a flywheel on the right side of the machine. And it's the inertia from this wheel that makes the LSZ-1 sew so smoothly through heavy material at slow speeds. The upgrade kit also comes with a light and some other little tidbits. Personally, I would rather have their deluxe light. The one that comes with the upgrade kit is sort of light-weight in my opinion. But how often do you really use a light? If you don't want to spring for the Upgrade Package, I would at least buy the monster balance wheel.

Thread: The machine comes with a spool of V-69 thread. And I suppose that's adequate for many jobs. But I prefer to use the heavier thread ... I use the V-138 thread. It's a lot heavier, it's a lot more resistant to wear and abrasion, it's almost impossible for a seam to rip out because of weak thread and it just lasts a lot longer than the lighter threads. With this size thread, I use a #20 size needle ... nothing smaller ... nothing larger. Oh, I only use white Dacron thread, too. Colored thread contains dye. And this dye seems to break down the thread's natural durability.

Zipper foot: You might be wondering if you need to buy a left and/or a right zipper foot. I've not bought one yet. And not sure I really need one. If I was sewing a dozen zippers, I might want to have a zipper foot. But my sewing usually encompasses a wide variety of things -- not just zippers. So you might want to decide on this later.

Case: The case that comes with the machine is 'adequate' ... not an overkill by no means. They were obviously focused on the design and manufacture of the sewing machine and not on the case. And that's fine by me. SailRite has a nice optional wooden case (for a price). But for me, the white plastic case is just fine.

Other: I've bought several videos from SailRite. One on my machine. And a couple on sail maintenance and repair. I'll say up front that the "theatrical quality" of these videos isn't gonna win any awards any time soon ... but the content of these tapes is excellent. Besides, what do you want for ten bucks?!!

I don't think you can go wrong with the LSZ-1. It will sew forwards and backwards, it does straight stitches as well as a very nice zigzag. It handles Sunbrella, StratoGlass, sail cloth and leather. And I think you'll be very pleased with this machine.

From John Heinisch on the SailNet liveaboard-list:
I have a SailRite Ultrafeed (model LSZ-1) zigzag sewing machine. Easily sews through 6-7 layers of Sunbrella. Sews right through StratoGlass and leather, too. It will also sew lighter materials ... not what you would expect out of a heavy duty machine.

The machine takes up about as much space as an average size toolbox. And it's worth it's weight in gold!! Every time I pull mine out, there's at least a couple people that stop by and ask if I'm available to do a little sewing for them. It can be a great little 'cash cow' if you learn the basics of sewing marine canvas. It doesn't take much ... just takes practice. So you rip out a few seams and do them over - no big deal!

As for electricity, it runs off shore power. But it can also run off a small 300W inverter available from Radio Shack. I bought one for about a hundred bucks that plugs into a cigarette lighter receptacle. But you can probably find them cheaper than that.

Oh, I bought the SailRite upgrade package for this machine which comes with a larger and heavier inertia balance wheel which helps immensely when sailing heavy materials. I also use a heavier-than-recommended UV resistant thread. I use a V-138 which is much more wear resistant then the standard V-69 thread.

SailRite is usually at the Annapolis Sailboat Show in October. They're a swell bunch of folks. Very helpful, not pushy at all. When I bought my machine, they really seemed like they wanted to make sure that I bought the right machine for my needs. In fact, they actually suggested a smaller machine. But I usually opt for the next model up when it comes to something like this as I tend to underestimate the work that I'm going to be doing. As a result, I'm extremely happy with the machine that I bought.

From Al Schober on Cruising World message board:
I have an Adler model 220-L that I bought about 25 years ago, used, at a local sewing machine repair shop. It was less than $100 at the time. It only does straight stitch and zig-zag, but I have yet to need to put a button hole in a sail. I'd recommend starting your search at a local repair shop. Take some samples of the fabrics you intend to sew, and the shop owner should be able to show you how to set up the machine to do what you want. As a final tip, don't skimp on the thread. Buy the good stuff from Heminway and Bartlett. Trying to use cheap thread is a frustrating waste of time. BTW, sail repair is often best left to the pros because of the volume of material that you have to shove through the machine. For instance, repairing the miter seam of a jib requires shoving half the sail under the arm. It is less demanding on the machine to build a new sail as you're only adding one panel at a time, then you do the edges. But, even if you do no sail repair work, it's worthwhile having a machine just for doing canvas (Sunbrella) work.

From Jean Sheldon on Cruising World message board:
You don't have to buy one of those machines [advertised in sailing magazines]. You can sew most canvas items with a home machine with few modifications. Usually older machines are your best bet. Get a machine with all metal parts. One modification you may have to make is to increase the pressure on the pressure foot. This is usually pretty simple just by adding a stronger spring or an additional spring. Also, be sure you're using a big enough needle for the size thread you're using. It's a good idea to learn sewing techniques to keep the number of layers of fabric to a minimum.

Will you be sewing just canvas with your machine or will you also be sewing sails? If you want to sew both, you'll need a machine that sews both straight stitch and zig zag. Zig zag machines are more difficult to keep in time and in general are more finicky than a straight stitch machine. A good old home machine for canvas and sails is a Pfaff 130.

If a straight stitch is all you need and space is not a problem, look for a used commercial machine with a walking foot. A Singer 111W or Pfaff 145 are both good choices. You'll be much happier sewing your dodger (and happier with the stitches) using a walking foot machine.

I have bought used machines by advertising in the classified section of the newspaper, "Wanted to buy used commercial walking foot machine." I have always gotten calls with this type of ad.

Before you buy a dodger "kit", I recommend you read "Canvas Work and Sail Repair" by Don Casey. This is an excellent book with very good pictures for building canvas items such as dodgers and biminis.

From Andiamo John on Cruising World message board:
I also have an old Singer and several years ago I ripped the main right about half way up the luff. I was just able to roll up the sail from each end small enough to get it through the throat of the Singer. The newer machines, like the Sailrite, have the power and walking foot but you can't get anything significantly large through their tiny throats. Pfaff 130 has more room than a Sailrite I believe, but you need to find it on the used market.

From Dennis Biby on The Live-Aboard List:
I didn't know how to sew until 3 months ago when I drug out my new Sailrite and jumped in. First I made two weather cloths followed by a lee cloth. Easy, but they were good practice in sewing seams, cutting, and pounding in grommets. Two days later, I tied into the dodger.

With the dodger, I took apart an old blown out one that I used for the pattern. (Were I to do this again, I wouldn't use the old one as a pattern.) After several attempts, I got the new one sewn together with an opening zippered window in the front. My cushions are next once I settle on the fabric.

I suggest: "Canvas Work and Sail Repair" by Don Casey, and "Sewing for Dummies". And most important - a good seam ripper.

From Jeff Smith on The Live-Aboard List:
... when I made the original canvas with a home machine, it was way too much for the machine, and in addition to doing a terrible job, it threw the beast way out of timing. It was fixed by a mechanic for $25. He told me I was lucky because my home machine is one of the better ones with metal gears. Seems more than a few home machines (even the name brands) have cheaper plastic gears, and if you try to use them on something too heavy, you rip the gears apart. He says once that happens, it's usually not worth repairing! So check before you wreck your machine if you are going to sew heavy stuff. ...

Buy material/needles from awning supply wholesaler, or tailor's supply shop.

Should be able to find Sunbrella for $7 to $10 a yard at a wholesaler and/or on sale.

When making Sunbrella dodger/bimini, use Teflon/Goretex thread instead of polyester; lasts longer.

Waterproofing canvas: saturate with Thompson's Water Seal Ultra Waterproofer, or use CanVak.

From Scottie Baugh on The Live-Aboard List:
... Probably the most important thing you can do to improve your work is use good thread. The dacron sold by Sailmaker's Supply and Sailrite is well worth the price. This thread comes on a cone and is sold by weight, so a thread stand is necessary. Also, as this thread is very heavy, a bobbin fills very quickly and is very quickly used. I usually fill several bobbins at once so that I can just put in a new one without having to stop and fill one. A one pound cone will probably last through all your boat projects; I've used four in the last 12 years sewing for us and lots of other people. Over the years, I have found the people at Sailmaker's Supply in Biloxi and at Sailrite to be very helpful with any questions I might have about my machines, fabric, construction techniques, etc.

From Gene Gruender on The Live-Aboard List:
We were in a sail shop in Biloxi, MS buying repair material for our sails and the sailmaker gave us some tips on how to make our old Singer into a machine capable of doing our repairs. He said that most machines could do it, the big problem was weak parts like plastic gears. We have an old cast-iron Singer, so it worked fine.

The three things I remember are:

1. Add weight to the flywheel so it has the momentum to carry it through the fabric.

2. Mount a chunk of wax along the thread path so that the thread goes over it, lubricating the thread.

3. Dull the needle point. Yes, I know, that sounds counterproductive, but he explained that if it's sharp, it will try to go through a thread in the material and won't make it. If it's dull it will slide between the threads and work much better.

From Keith on The Live-Aboard List:
Did you use canvas needles from Sailrite in the home machine? I bought some and it made a difference in how it sewed the canvas. Of course I used their thread as well.