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Sailmaking Tradition Continues

by Larry S. Chowning

Latell Sailmakers in Deltaville recently delivered 4,000 square feet of new sail to the Jamestown Foundation for the “Susan Constant” replica. Scroll down for part 2 of the video.

One hundred and twenty years ago, sailmakers were as common on the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck as automobile mechanics are today.

Sail-powered log canoes and bateaux bustled on local waterways and were the primary means of commercial transportation.

The main source of income for residents came from the river. Even lawyers and doctors were known to pull in their shingles during the first weeks of the oyster season in October and go out in their own sailboats “to catch the bank or smokehouse door open.”

The common expression throughout the area for those first few days of the oyster season was that the “bank had finally opened,” or that “the smokehouse door has swung wide open.”

The opening week of the season was an exciting time on the Rappahannock and the Potomac rivers. During the off-season, country stores kept families in sugar, salt and pepper and anything else they couldn’t grow or milk. The stores provided “tick” (credit) to make sure that everyone had what they needed. Usually, in the first few weeks of the oyster season, the tick was paid off. 

In September, right before the opening day, it was a busy time for oyster shaft tong makers, boat repairmen and sailmakers. Every neighborhood had a sailmaker. If it was a woman, she might have been a former slave who learned the craft while making and patching sails for her master’s boat, and she continued using her talents when freedom came.

Jerry Latell and his crew had to research traditional methods and tools used to make sails for vessels such as the Susan Constant.

In the Remlik area of Middlesex County, James Groom made small sails for 20- to 25-foot log canoes in an outbuilding on his property. When motors came along, he moved to Urbanna and opened Groom’s Restaurant in the old Taylor Hardware Building in Urbanna.

The days of small sail-powered workboats pretty much ended with the introduction of gasoline and diesel engines. However, the craft of making sails continued to serve larger sailing craft, such as the schooners that continued to work the waters of the Chesapeake until after World War II. The job of making these big sails was pretty much confined to large sail lofts in Baltimore, Crisfield, Md., and Norfolk.

After WWII, a change in the American lifestyle brought the profession of sailmaking back. Recreational sailing became popular in the mid-20th century and it has continued to this day. This opened the door for a new breed of sail-maker.

Jerry Latell of Latell Sailmakers in Deltaville has revived the local sailmaking tradition in the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. He owns and operates the only sail loft in Deltaville.

Holding the sails of the “Susan Constant” replica are, from left, Jerry Latell, Angie Hurst and Justin Ailsworth. Not pictured is Lance Barton.

The term “sail loft” is an ancient phrase, explained Latell. In the old days, the sail loft was above where ships were being built. “Sailmakers worked up in the loft and the term has stuck. Most sail lofts are not lofts any more.”

Latell’s sail loft has a raised floor and there are pits in the floor where sewing machines sit, almost level with the floor. This enables workers to sew the sails at floor level. There are several types of sewing machines and each does a specific job in making a sail.

Latell’s firm primarily works on cruising and racing sails for sailors in the Deltaville area. “We make and repair sails for everything from Sunfish to 50-foot cruising boats and racing boats of all sizes,” he said.

“We do a lot of repair work and we are one of the few lofts in the United States that still builds a large number of our own sails here,” he said. “Labor costs have driven sailmaking overseas. Most of the new sails that are being built on the budget side (standard sails) are done overseas.

“Most of the sails we build are replacement sails,” he said.  “About half of our business is service and repair, and the other half is replacement sails.”

Traditional sails
Latell Sailmakers in Deltaville made the sails for the replica of “Susan Constant,” the largest vessel of the three that brought the first settlers to Jamestown. (Courtesy of Jamestown Settlement, Williamsburg)

Recently, however, Latell said his firm was “lucky enough to branch off into another whole area of sailmaking that is pretty specialized.” His crew of two men and one woman landed the plum job of making 4,000 square feet of sail for the Jamestown replica of “Susan Constant,” which was the largest of the three ships that carried settlers in 1607 from the Virginia Company in England to Jamestown.

The firm also landed the job of making sails for “Eagle,” a 295-foot barge used as a training cutter for future officers of the U.S. Coast Guard. The barge’s home port is Connecticut and Latell and crew recently went there to deliver some finished sails.

“We got the job for the Susan Constant sort of by chance,” Latell said. “This kind of (traditional sailmaking) work is not done except in a very few lofts around the country. We hadn’t done much of it either except for the sail on the Deltaville Maritime Museum’s shallop ‘Explorer,’ which got us interested in the Susan Constant.”

The sail for the shallop actually helped Latell get the job for the Jamestown Foundation. “We had something they could go look at,” he said. “The traditional sails are completely different from what we usually do. There are no computers involved. We use the sewing machines just in the very beginning of the project. All the rest is done by hand, the same way it was done 400 years ago.

“The materials, although they are modern, are made to look traditional,” he said. “The rope comes white so we dyed it to make it look tarred. The cloth is a special cloth made for traditional boats.

“The process in general is all done by hand,” he continued. “We have about 600 hours in the Jamestown project.”

For guidance, Latell got the help of an expert sailmaker who specializes in making traditional local sails. “He shared a great deal of information with us and we spent a lot of time researching it. We had to go to some very old books because there is not a lot of information out there on it. We’ve had a very good time doing this and we think the sails have turned out very well. We look forward to doing more,” he said.

Jerry Latell, Justin Ailsworth, Angie Hurst and Lance Barton of Latell Sailmakers are carrying on a tradition that fits well with the maritime heritage of Deltaville—once considered the wooden boatbuilding capital of the Chesapeake Bay.

posted 04.23.2009

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