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Cheap machine for sail/sunbrella work

TKanzler | Posted in Equipment and Supplies on

First time sticking my nose in here, so be gentle.

I’m considering making my own asymmetrical spinnaker (big downwind sail, for the land lubbers), and need an inexpensive used machine that can do sail work, as well as sunbrella for the odd sun cover repair, and new winch/helm covers and such.

Poking around ebay, there is a dizzying array of used machines, many claiming to be professionally serviced and/or remanufactured, often going for less than $200. I don’t want to spend a pile of money for a machine I’ll only use once in a while for repairs once the sail is done. A new Sailrite zig-zag portable is around $850, which is way more than I want to spend for the little bit I’d use it overall.

About the only requirement is that it works, and can do zig-zag stitches (preferred over more passes of straight stitches for sail work). Portability would be nice, as I’ve had to get repairs made in away marinas in the past, and it would be nice to keep it on the boat.

Can anyone recommend ones to look for, or to stay away from? I know, it’s like the ‘which table saw should I buy’ threads in the woodworking forums I frequent, which come up about once a week, but I don’t see any such sail-specific threads for the non-pro (read: barely-capable) here, and short of just buying one and hoping for the best, I don’t know how to proceed.

Oh, and sewing skills are limited to making a few small things when I was a kid, on my mother’s 1940’s Singer, 40+ years ago, but I can still sew a straight line, more or less.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

Be seeing you…

Edited 9/29/2009 12:48 pm ET by TKanzler


  1. Ckbklady | | #1

    Hiya and welcome!

    On my local Craigslist I see lots of industrial machines for sale which may be worth a look. Some pre-1970s personal machines have the heft to do the heavy-duty sewing you want to do (Pfaff 130, Bernina 730, 830 and 930 and some Necchis, for example).

    I suggest that you check into Craigslist to become familiar with the machines out there (as opposed to eBay, where bidding wars can wipe out a budget in a flash). The prices may be better, and you can test drive before you buy.

    The only caveat with industrial machines is that they typically come in large tables, weigh a lot and may need their own breaker on your electrical panel. The only caveat with personal machines is that you may burn out the motor if you overtax the machine with heavy-duty sewing. It's a tossup, but it's a fun puzzle to have!

    Good luck and let us know here what you choose - it's nice to think of someone sewing sails!!

    :) Ckbklady


  2. gailete | | #2

    Hello, I'm going to ad a bit to the other poster. What you seem to be looking for is a heavy duty mechanical machine. There are a lot of machines out there under $200 that will sew a zigzag stitch but the ability to sew one on sailcloth, etc. is doubtful. So you really aren't looking for a cheap machine but a machine that can do the job at the lowest price possible. I think in this instance you would want a mechanical machine over computerized as I'm not sure any of the low end computerized machines could handle what you want nor would they take very kindly to the rigors of salt air and a life on a boat I suspect.

    You may find this suggestion a bit of work, but all the major sewing machine companies have on line websites that you could write in and ask for their recommendations of which machine would be best for what you need it for (explaining as you did to use) and then take their recommendations to search for a used machine. You may find an industrial machine may be the best for you, although it probably wouldn't be as portable as you would like.


    Happy sails!


    1. TKanzler | | #6

      It's only been 8 years but I bought a machine

      I found a Pfaff 259 in very clean condition and that runs smoothly and quietly.  Zig-zag and straight stitch only, with reverse.  I replaced some vinyl windows in the dodger with good success, and will move on to attempting some sail work in the near future.

      I see only one or two original respondents are still active, and wanted to close the loop even though it's been a while.  

      Thanks all for the input.  ;^)

  3. gogojojo | | #3

    I think you may actually need two different machines. I used to work in a sail loft (in the canvas department, though). Spinnaker sails are usually made from that lightweight nylon that would get eaten up by a canvas machine. We used a Pfaff industrial zigzag for the sails, (sorry, I forget the model number) and a Singer 111w155 for heavy boat canvas.

    I had a portable commercial walking foot machine for my personal use that I bought off ebay, and it was pretty good for heavyweight material, but wouldn't sew anything lightweight. I did lots of jobs with it that you can't do with a regular home machine, like car seats. These can still be found on ebay for a reasonable price. For example:


    Maybe you can get away with doing the sail on a regular home machine with a zigzag stitch.


    1. TKanzler | | #4

      Thanks for the replies everyone.I'll have to investigate the minimum requirements for the relatively light sail cloth I'd use for the spinnaker (3/4 oz), but whether I build it or buy it, I still need a machine that can do repairs and a little (simple) construction in sunbrella.My FIL's Sailrite machine (straight stitch only) had trouble resewing the sun cover on my working jib, particularly where the reinforcements are. Something like 6 or 8 layers of 6-8 oz. sail cloth in some places, with 2 layers of sunbrella. A lot of my canvas needs restitching, as the thread deteriorates from the sun long before the cloth gets old, so I'd probably be better off looking for a machine that can handle that sort of heavy work.I'd also like to learn how to make some of this canvas work myself, but repair work is the more pressing need, and probably a better place to start anyway. Harder to mess up an existing seam just restitching, I would think. Maybe DW's portable machine can handle the light spinnaker cloth, and I should just look around for an old, heavy machine for canvas work and heavy sail/suncover repair.

    2. TKanzler | | #5

      "Maybe you can get away with doing the sail on a regular home machine with a zigzag stitch."Just had a chat with Sailrite, who would supply the sailcloth, and they said that a home machine with zig-zag is fine for this light weight sail. It never even occurred to me until you suggested it. <groan>That means I only need a HD machine for sun covers, heavy sailcloth repair, and various other sunbrella work. I'll look into the machines recommended, and take it from there.Thanks to everyone. I really appreciate it.

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