View Full Version : Cotton sails
07-19-2004, 09:57 PM
I read somewhere about how nice it is to hear the soft ruffle of traditional cotton sails. As with nearly all sailors mine is dacron and n-o-i-s-y.
Is it worth the trouble to have cotton sails? How much more work are they really? I know they will mildew more easily but what else? Are they more expensive?
Todd Bradshaw - chime in!
[ 07-19-2004, 09:58 PM: Message edited by: Captain Pre-Capsize ]
07-19-2004, 10:07 PM
If your dacron is noisy, it's because of the resin in the cloth, not the material. Cotton rots, stretches, gets mildew, is tough to store, has to be broken in, then it stretches out of shape. Other than that, it's not so bad.
07-19-2004, 10:19 PM
Art Read got sails made for his "Mylinda" Dark Harbor 12-1/2 out of a synthetic made to look like Egyptian Cotton. Sort of a pale cream to my eye. It felt good in the hand and wasn't noisy like the more common dead white dacron.
It was not Oceanus cloth - that only comes in weights too heavy for a smaller boat. The DH 12-1/2 is 20'.
The sails looked supurb - very traditional looking and much more restful on the eye - much less glare. The sails where made by Hasse & Co. in Port Townsend, WA.
07-19-2004, 11:30 PM
Art's sails are made from Contender Cream Dacron. Other similar fabrics are available from Challenge Sailcloth (Egyptian Dacron), Bainbridge International (Classic Cream) and Richard Hayward Sailcloth (Sunwing in Egyptian Cream color). They look great, but still are much crunchier than real cotton. The heavyweight, softer versions like North's Oceanus and Hayward Clipper Canvas are quite nice and noticably softer, but weren't designed for, or available in weights that work very well on, small boats.
As Dan mentioned, there are certainly drawbacks to real cotton, though in some cases it may not be quite as much of a doom-and-gloom scenario. Wooden boats tend to have some similar weaknesses and we all seem to agree that they're worth having. Cotton sails do take more care and cotton is probably one of the worst possible materials for building the typical Marconi main or high-performance sail, but on small boat sprits, lugs, etc. it can often work very well. The sails are small enough that drying and storing is reasonably simple and the traditional sailshapes can usually live with cloth having less stability and more stretch than modern Dacron. Aerodynamically, you're far more likely to get a good shape with Dacron and the sail will usually hold that shape longer, though a cotton sail will usually have longer U.V. life than a Dacron one.
I get a fair number of old cotton canoe and dinghy sails coming in to be reproduced in Egyptian Cream Dacron. Some are nearly 100 years old and many are in surprisingly good shape for their age. The majority of the problems these sails have were caused by poor storage (big stains, mouse holes, etc.) rather than from use. A well made Egyptian cotton sail is truly a thing of beauty. The fabric is wonderful stuff, thin, but surprisingly sturdy and tight and it sews beautifully because the stitches bury into the cloth more than on Dacron, where they just sit on the surface.
I certainly wouldn't suggest that folks dump their Dacron sails and replace them with cotton, but if you can find someone with a supply of the right materials (which is getting tough)and the experience needed to build really good cotton sails and if you're willing to baby them when needed, I wouldn't try to talk you out of it. There is no logic in buying (or making) cheap cotton sails, so yes, expect to pay a pretty penny for good ones.
07-20-2004, 08:19 AM
It sounds like cotton would work best in downwind sails, like a big baloon jib, where aerodynamic shape matters less...
07-20-2004, 10:46 AM
I have owned 2 different sails that were made of Egyptian cotton. One was a spritsail for a Delaware Ducker and the other was a gaff sail for a Melonseed. Both were made by Nat Wilson of Boothbay, Maine. They were beautiful sails and definitely much softer and quieter than dacron sails. In both cases, the rigs were small enough so they could easily be stored out of the weather. I didn't find that they were any more difficult to care for than a synthetic sail. Just keep them clean and dry when not in use. But you should keep your synthetic sails clean and dry when they aren't in use too, right?
The biggest difficulty is in finding someone that can obtain and will work with Egyptian cotton sailcloth. I'm not sure if Nat Wilson can still get the cloth or not but you might give him a call to see. I think he still advertises in WoodenBoat.
07-20-2004, 04:02 PM
Perhaps the real problem is that they take longer to dry as they soak deeper, and some folks store their sails as they're still wet, then the warm season ends.
it seems cotton takes a greyish hue with the passing of time, and salt.
I also feel dacron canvas looks too stiff on a traditional boat.
07-20-2004, 09:06 PM
Salt probably deserves it's own category here for those who sail in salt water. The residual salt that gets deposited on your sails while sailing in salt air and salt water helps make a good home for nasty organic stuff like mildew. On Dacron, most of it stays on the surface where it may grow and discolor the cloth, but it doesn't tend to do much structural damage to the plastic fabric. On cotton sails, the salt and it's guests can get down deep into the fibers, causing increased fiber-to-fiber abrasion and in some cases, rot. The best preventative measure is frequent fresh water rinsing of your sails, so even if they aren't getting wet while you're sailing, needing careful post-sail drying, they will be getting wet from rinsing and need careful drying on a fairly frequent basis after you have been sailing.
07-21-2004, 10:18 AM
My boat has a 600 sq. foot main, and I still hear tales from the old guys who used to sail these things in the days of cotton sails. They had to take the main off after every race to dry it!. That was one reason most had a full-time hand to handle these chores. I'm thinking that without dacron and epoxy, there would be no wooden boats.
07-21-2004, 02:10 PM
I don't know squat about sails. But Todd was kind enuf to draw me a storm jib and I was game enuf to try and make it.
It's cotton because I had the heavy canvas on hand and the dacron Sailrite kit in heavy weight woulda run over 200 bucks.
A lot more pleasant to sew than harder dacron, I believe. For durability I soaked it in copper napthanate...hence the green color....and treated it with 50-40-10 beeswax/linseed/pine tar applied hot.
It'll hang stretched in the sun for a couple weeks to drive off the volatiles before bagging it....even then I'll let the bag sit alone in the sun for a few days to make sure it's not gonna spontaneously combust.
Good call on all points, Todd....after soaking and stretching a few times with a comealong, I think it's gonna keep its shape. The curve in the leach was my incompetence with the sewing machine, not the fabric.
[ 07-21-2004, 02:12 PM: Message edited by: Bob Smalser ]
07-21-2004, 03:42 PM
I'll let the bag sit alone in the sun for a few days to make sure it's not gonna spontaneously combust.
Yeah, that would be kind of a rude surprise smile.gif
07-21-2004, 04:08 PM
...rude surprise... Specially in the cuddy of a brand new boat.
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