What type of sewing machine does a sailmaker use to make sails?

7th February 2024 Melanie Jenkins

The kind of sewing machine a sailmaker uses very much depends on the type and size of sails they want to make or repair. Space available in the workshop or loft and budget are also important factors.

Windsurf sails, kites, spinnakers, dinghy sails and one design sails can generally be made using a fairly standard industrial sail sewing machine that offers zigzag and 3 step (6 point) zigzag sewing capabilities. In this case thread sizes are usually thinner such as bonded polyester size V69, and the sails are not very thick.

An example of this would be the Solent S525 series or Solent S217H series.

For windsurf sails and kites which have more webbings to be attached it is useful to have a walking foot zigzag machine, this helps to feed the sailcloth and webbing through the machine evenly.

An example of this would be the Solent H305 series (Tony H305 but with Solent easy cam change system)

Sails for boats up to approximately 40ft are bigger, thicker and heavier and are usually seamed and finished with thicker threads such as  bonded polyester size V92 or V138. Because sails are made of individual panels (strips) that are joined (seamed) together, they grow in size. A standard sewing machine does not have enough space under the upper arm to accommodate a large roll of sail so a longer / higher arm machine is needed.

As well as needing more space, the machine might require assistance to pull the sail through the feeding system so a puller feed is usually added to the machine. This can be a roller puller or a belt puller, but it needs to be heavy duty and able to lift high enough when not in use to avoid obstructing the work area.

It is also recommended to have pneumatic operation on these machines. Compressed air is used (from a standalone compressor) to give extra pressure on the sewing foot, to lift and lower the sewing foot, to lift and raise the puller feed and in some cases to have an air cooler on the needle to stop threads from breaking due to friction. See more information below on pneumatic functions.

An example of this would be the Solent SKZ-850 series

For larger sails and for thicker sails where much thicker threads such as bonded polyester sizes V138 and V207 are used an even heavier duty, more powerful sewing machine is needed.

The space under the upper arm should be bigger, the needle bar stroke should be longer (this is how far the needle travels from highest to lowest point) and the most powerful drive motor and puller feed is required. Pneumatic equipment should be fitted as standard on these sewing machines.

An example of this would be the Solent 366-760-HA or Solent Oceanmaster series

Important considerations when looking for a sail sewing machine:

SPEED 

In a production sail loft speed / productivity are important considerations. Because of the thick threads, heavy panels and precise nature of sewing sails, the sewing machines are run at lower speeds than a standard industrial sewing machine, usually between 600 – 2,000 stitches per minute, depending on the machine and sail being sewn.

STITCH TYPE 

Most sails are sewn with 1 needle in either or both 2 point zigzag or 3 step (6 point) zigzag. Standard zigzag sewing machines usually have 1 or the other of these stitch types so sail sewing machines are different in that they can have both, with changeover usually by a cam change or occasionally by a lever on the machine

2 NEEDLE SEWING

Sew 2 rows of stitching at one time. This has these advantages:

SOLENT OFFER UNIQUE SEWING MACHINES THAT DO THIS – SEE SOLENT TWINNER SERIES and TWINNER ULTRA-HD

PNEUMATIC FUNCTIONS

PULLER FEEDS

Each sewing machine has a feed mechanism to pull the material through the machine but for heavier sails the weight and thickness make it much more difficult to feed. This is when a puller feed is needed to assist the sewing machine. The bigger / thicker / heavier the sail, the more power is needed.

A good quality, intermittent feeding gearbox that is precisely matched with the sewing feed is the best option. These only move when the sewing machine is feeding the material through. Pullers that do not have an  intermittent feed pull constantly so can cause sewing needles to bend and break.

The puller feed is fixed behind the sewing foot. This can be a rubber roller type puller for lighter sails or a special wide, heavy duty belt puller for larger and heavier sails.

DRIVE MOTORS AND CONTROLS

Each sewing machine is driven by an electric motor. Modern economical, energy saving motors are much better than the old clutch motors used in the past but need to be powerful for sewing sails.

The right drive motor and control can be the make or break of a good sail sewing machine so it is worth spending a little extra to get the best available. A good machine with the wrong motor and control is a bad investment and will cause a lot of frustration and discontent.

MACHINE STAND

A good quality, steel sewing machine stand with wheels is the best option. This allows easy movement around the workshop / loft. A good solid table top will last the wear and tear it will get in daily use.

CONVEYOR SYSTEMS

For larger sails and to increase productivity a conveyor system is an advantage. This also has the benefit of reducing operator fatigue and the risk of strains or injury.

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