The History of Sailcloth
Sailing all over our blue planet
NANU is a Sydney-based design company that creates beautiful home and lifestyle pieces from up-cycled sailcloth. Founded by Gabriele Jordan, all products are hand made in Australia, using recycled sailcloth combined with Australian leather or timber. Made for wind, water and sun, sailcloth is perfect for reuse as stylish outdoor furniture, bags and home wares. Our design and production process ensure that each NANU piece is both timeless and unique.
Sailcloth is most commonly made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) fibre, marketed as Dacron®. It is resilient against abrasion, UV light resistant, highly flexible, lightweight and has a low absorbency that ensures it dries quickly. This durability is perfect for sailing and other outdoor uses.
Unfortunately, however, these qualities also result in a material that is non-biodegradable, and the end point for most unwanted sailcloth is landfill. By collecting used sailcloth and giving it new life, NANU is diverting this waste stream from landfill while creating a practical, stylish range of Australian made products for people who appreciate quality and care about our planet.
Sailcloth – history in the making
The most popular fabric for sails from the earliest times through to the mid-nineteenth century was finely woven linen made from flax, along with more coarsely woven hemp. These fabrics were gradually replaced by cotton ‘duck’ sailcloth from around 1820 (i), which was more durable and cheaper to make.
With advances in technology, the need for sail in commercial shipping ended, although sailing remained a popular recreational activity. Today, the recreational sailing and sporting competition market continues to grow, although sails are no longer made of natural fibres.
In 1953 DuPont invented Dacron®, a PET-based polyester fibre that is now the mostcommonly used sailcloth for recreational vessels around the world. Dacron® has qualities of high flex resistance and ultra violet light resistance, as well as having good elasticity and tensile strength, which make it perfect for sailcloth.
Until the 1980s, Dacron® was the only sailcloth in use. Today’s sailcloths include not only woven polyesters and nylon, which is commonly used to make spinnaker sails, but also laminated sails such as Kevlar®–Mylar® composite that are used for high performance racing vessels. Other fibres continue to be designed and trialled to improve upon the qualities of standard sailcloth. (ii,iii,iv)
A life time at sea
While the materials used to make sailcloth are chosen for their durability, the actual usage life span of a sail is not as long as the majority of non-sailors would imagine. Structurally, sails lose their integrity over time as materials and stitching fail due to UV light and other wear and tear. Sail longevity tends to be measured in hours of use rather than years of ownership. They can be patched and repaired, and ensuring they are furled and covered when not in use can extend their life span; leaving a sail up to flap about in high winds can equate to 50 hours of normal sailing.
Based on this, a reasonably well-maintained sail should remain structurally sound for up to 4000 hours. Sails on a recreational boat used a couple of weekends a month for a fivemonth season, or around 240 hours per year, may last up to 16 years. On the other hand, sailors who live aboard and sail up to 12 hours a day for 12 days per month, around 1700 hours annually, will probably replace their sails every couple of years.v A charter boat will change its sails every three years, which amounts to around 2000 hours. (vi)
Performance sailors replace sails much more frequently than casual cruisers. Sail shape deteriorates gradually with every hour of use, becoming stretchy and not maintaining the critical aerofoil shape required for speed and efficiency. Even when treated well, sails tend to retain good shape for only half to two-thirds of their structural life. (vii)
Sails that are built with the sole purpose of going fast generally would not be expected to last into triple figure hours on the water. Serious competitors will even replace the manufacturer-supplied sails with custom-made sails as soon as they take delivery of a new boat. For serious races, many skippers won’t risk losing by using sails that are even slightly stretched out of shape, and some even train using brand new sails each time. (viii)
Repairing and using second-hand sails is not an option at this end of the market. Millions of boats cruising and racing on the oceans and lakes of the world, each with several sets of sails for different conditions that are regularly replaced as they lose their shape…The question has to be asked: what happens to all of these old sails?
Bound for landfill
Sailing can be costly, both financially and unfortunately for our planet. The process of manufacturing sails out of woven PET fibre, or the combination of textiles used in laminated cloth, result in a fabric from which it is difficult to separate the component materials. In addition, sailcloth is impregnated with resins during the manufacturing process, to further waterproof the material and to guard against mildew and UV light degradation. These resins, along with all the metal fittings and other materials used to construct a sail, complicate the process required to recycle the cloth when it reaches its use-by date.
Currently boat owners, sail makers and yacht clubs are responsible for the disposal of unwanted used sails. Due to the complex mix of materials in the cloth, recycling is not currently an option in Australia. As a consequence, old sails as well as the offcuts from sail makers usually end up in landfill.
Every synthetic sail produced since the 1950s still persists on our planet. The properties that make sailcloth perfect for resisting the elements at sea also contribute to slow degradation rates. Dacron®, Kevlar® and Mylar® do not break down quickly; some estimates suggest that the woven and laminated structures take over 1000 years to degrade in landfill. (ix)
In addition to their own poor ability to biodegrade, sails in landfill also have a tendency to unfurl, covering and protecting other materials under them, all the while leaching toxic substances into the environment. It is difficult to know just how much sailcloth is discarded each year. Figure 1 compares the quantities of various waste streams that are recycled or disposed of to landfill. Generally unwanted sails end up mixed in with food, diapers and other household and commercial rubbish, classified as ‘Unknown’. Note that as recycling amounts are measured in weight, less dense materials such as plastic may be recovered in significant volumes but are not represented as high tonnage. (x)
Inquiries to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Commonwealth Department of the Environment, Clean Up Australia, state and national boating associations, and representatives from the recycling industry have not provided any insights to the scope of this problem.
Setting sail on a new course
The majority of boat owners would prefer not to send their used sails to landfill. They have been purchased at considerable expense, and owners recognise the quality of the material. There are often also stories and sentimental value attached to old sails. Rather than disposing of them, many owners store old sails in the hope they will find another use for them.
Unfortunately the options for redirection of used sailcloth from landfill are currently limited. Even for commonly recycled waste streams of paper products and metals, the rate of diversion from landfill depends upon the size of the local industry. Small to medium enterprises often report that recyclers will not collect material from their premises as the volumes are too small. (xi)
To address this problem, as well as to secure a supply of used sails for its product range, NANU proposes to investigate options for infrastructure to collect and redistribute used sail for reuse, upcycling and potentially recycling.
There is a small market for second hand sails in Australia for recreational sailors. Individuals and traders such as secondsail.net tend to list their stock online at eBay or boating websites such as seabreeze.com.au.
In the US, Sails for Sustenance collects used sails and donates them to subsistence fishermen in Haiti, who otherwise use makeshift sails made from discarded flour sacks and plastic sheeting. (xii)
In response to the crisis caused by an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Sails for Sustenance diverted its donations to provide sails to be used as temporary shelters for displaced people.
Artists and craftspeople have realised the potential of sailcloth as a durable, strong and lightweight material that can be repurposed into a variety of different products. Upcycled products are often more practical, valuable and beautiful than the original material.
In Australia, NANU manufactures bags and soft furnishings using sailcloth from the Sydney region, complementing this unique material with Australian leather and other sailing fixtures. Each piece is designed to be unique and stylish, affording practicality and comfort that promise to survive generations and sail through life.
While sailcloth is currently difficult to recycle due to its woven or laminated structure of mixed materials, the other components of a sail such as rope, rings and battens can be recycled or reused. Of course, this can only be done if someone takes the time to separate each part from the sail.
On the Isle of Wight in the UK, Wightsails upcycles used sails into new products and is also exploring processes and uses for shredded unusable sail, which can be used for insulation and filling material. Their hope is to be able to strip this sailcloth back into fibres that can be sold back to manufacturers. (xiii)
For such innovations to be realised in Australia, infrastructure needs to be established that collects and distributes unwanted sailcloth from marinas and sailmakers before the material becomes part of the landfill waste stream.
This may involve the development of publicised drop off hubs and storage facilities for regular collection, potentially with partner organisations. Bins similar to those used by the National Association of Charitable Recycling Organisations (xiv) could be installed in appropriate locations.
Alternative solutions may include paid postage arrangements, as is offered by Wightsails in the UK and organisations such as Terracycle Australia (xv), or a collection system incorporating a fundraising element for ‘Sail Scouts’ or similar groups, based on the model employed by Product Development Corporation for the distribution of phone books. (xvi)
Plotting the journey
Preliminary research by NANU has revealed that there are a lot of unknowns that need to be resolved to demonstrate that commercial recycling of sailcloth is feasible.
Initial questions to answer include:
• How much sailcloth is produced and disposed of in Australia per annum?
• What are the impacts of sending this quantity of material to landfill, and what are the benefits of redirecting this waste stream to recycling?
• Is there a market for used sailcloth to make a collection infrastructure feasible?
• What are the best mechanisms for an efficient collection and distribution system for used sail materials?
NANU is seeking funding or partnerships to investigate these issues. Interested parties, or those with questions or feedback, can contact Gabriele Jordan in Sydney on +61 (0)478 956 957 or by email at email@example.com.
For more information about the NANU product range, visit www.nanu.com.au.
i The Dear Surprise (2010) A Brief History of Sailcloth During the Age of Sail, edited extract taken from Frayler, J. (2005) The Great Age of Duck. Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions: Historical Musings from Salem Maritime NHS, 7(4). Salem Maritime National Historic Site, National Park Service, Mass. US. http://www.thedearsurprise.com/a-brief-history-of-sailcloth-during-the-age-of-sail/, viewed 22 August 2014.
ii Huntsmand, E. (2012) Sailcloth Science. https://sites.google.com/site/sailclothscience/home-1, viewed 25 August 2014.
iii Mahr, P. & Doyle, B. Industrial Fibers. http://www.northcloth.northsails.com/Products/tabid/578/Default.aspx, viewed 25 August 2014.
iv UK Sailmakers International, Encyclopedia of Sails. http://www.uksailmakers.com/Resources/Encyclopedia.html, viewed 25 August 2014.
v Flynn, D. (2013) How long do sails last? Quantum Sail Design Group. http://www.quantumsails.com/news/index.php/2013/07/how-long-do-sails-last/, viewed 25 August 2014.
vi Dove, A. (2008) How long will my sails last? http://www.sail-world.com/index.cfm?nid=48052, viewed 25 August 2014.
vii Flynn, D. (2013) How long do sails last? Quantum Sail Design Group. http://www.quantumsails.com/news/index.php/2013/07/how-long-do-sails-last/, viewed 25 August 2014.
viii Waddilove, G. (2013) Cruising and racing with the same sails. http://www.mysailing.com.au/news/cruising-and-racing-with-the-same-sails, viewed 25 August 2014.
ix Le Masurier, P. (2012) How long do sails take to degrade in landfill? Wightsails, Isle of Wight, UK. http://www.wightsails.com/blog/tag/landfill/, viewed 25 August 2014.
x Encycle Consulting Pty Ltd and Sustainable Resource Use Pty Ltd (2012) A study into commercial and industrial (C&I) waste and recycling in Australia by industry division. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra, Australia, page 29, http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/91b2180c-b805-44c5-adf7-adbf27a2847e/files/commercial-industrial-waste.pdf, viewed 22 August 2014.
xi Encycle Consulting Pty Ltd and Sustainable Resource Use Pty Ltd (2012) A study into commercial and industrial (C&I) waste and recycling in Australia by industry division. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra, Australia, page 32. http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/91b2180c-b805-44c5-adf7-adbf27a2847e/files/commercial-industrial-waste.pdf, viewed 22 August 2014.
xii www.sailsforsustenance.org, viewed 26 August 2014.
xiii www.wightsails.com, viewed 22 August 2014.
xiv www.nacro.org.au, viewed 26 August 2014.
xvi www.deliverphonebooks.com.au, viewed 26 August 2014.