Learning to Sew on a Sailboat: Interior Curtains

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Learning to Sew on a Sailboat: Interior Curtains

A boatyard neighbor once told me that becoming a sailboat owner opens the door to your next 7 careers as a mechanic, plumber, fiberglass technician, painter, woodworker, electrician, and rigger. I think he forgot sewer…seamstress…sewist?

Joining the Ranks

I’ve recently joined the club of sewing sailors, although to be honest it feels a little bit like being on the C squad of a very accomplished sports team. I find myself self-doubting and frustrated a LOT.  I was almost as nervous cutting into my first piece of fabric as I was when we drilled through the hull for the first time. I’m also hyper aware that my questions are rudimentary and probably quite annoying to most experienced sewers out there.
I’ve relied heavily on sewing blogs, youtube, an unsuspecting sailmaker in town (who made the mistake of opening his workshop door to me), and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve abused the Sailrite support team. They have been amazing and very patient with all of my questions!
I also joined a couple of Facebook sewing groups, my favorite two being SOB (Sewing on Boats) and the Sailrite Users Group. Both groups offer answers to my questions within minutes. If you haven’t ever thought about adding sewing to your list of skills, check these clever magicians out and you’ll run to your nearest fabric store! If you recommend any other online sewing communities out there, please let me know!
I learned from our sailboat refit that the only way to become adept at a new skill is to start somewhere, so I decided to jump into fabricating new curtains for our main cabin. We’ve somehow lived almost 2 years without sun shade and privacy in a boatyard due to one rash decision many afternoons ago when I took the scissors to the moldy (and dreary) curtains that the boat came with.
So, without further ado, I present to you our brand-spankin’-new “Aruba” interior curtains!

Step by Step is the Way to Go!

Hands down, the best aspect about learning to sew has been the path carefully crafted by companies like Sailrite, and a handful of other bloggers out there, that make starting from scratch possible. After reading the Ultrafeed LSZ-1 Plus instruction manual cover to cover, watching the enclosed introductory videos, and many youtube videos, including the Learning to Sew series and the very convenient how to make boat interior curtains video, look what I was able to make!

Beginner Sewing Tips

Before beginning this curtain project I asked our Facebook community for some beginner sewing pointers, and the ones I found most helpful were as follows:
1. Don’t watch the needle! It will do it’s job. More importantly, watch the fabric as you guide it under the needle.
When I started making my first stitches, it was like learning to drive stick shift for the first time. It felt awkward and very…. stop and go. I had a hard time multitasking and being fluid in my actions, and my stitches were all over the place! Then I remembered this little piece of advice, and the results were night and day. Big improvement.
2. Start with something simple and sew a mock-up model with a similar fabric before using your good fabric. This piece of advice did not include the “with a similar fabric” caveat. I’ve added it after learning what *not to do.
Initially I tried to save on cost by sewing a mock up curtain with a thin, silky bed sheet that was left on the boat from the original owners. This was a huge mistake because the needle (135×17 size 16) and thread (V-69 polyester) for a sunbrella project are dramatically oversized for thin fabrics. The result was craaazy puckering and crows nesting. You can see our video about it here. True, I could have adjusted my upper thread or bobbin tension and could have used another needle and thread, but I wasn’t comfortable enough making too many big adjustments yet. So, I ran to the fabric store and bought some outdoor fabric scraps on sale, and everything became 10 times easier. I was then able to make my mistakes on the mock-up curtain panel and then proceed to the “real” sunbrella Aruba upholstery fabric when I was ready.
3. Measure twice, cut once/ Err on the side of patterning too big because you can always go smaller. 
I had to adjust my seams a couple of times and I was glad that I had rounded up when measuring the track-to-track height. I agree with this blog post  that sewing should really be called “prepping”. I found the actual sewing to take up only about 20% of this curtain project. The rest of my time was devoted to measuring, re-measuring, modeling, basting, and pinning. In this respect, I’ve found that sewing is very similar to painting, woodworking, and fiberglass work, but at least re-applying basting tape is more comfortable than sanding fiberglass!
4. If using basting tape, keep cotton and rubbing alcohol handy to clean the needle.
I definitely noticed that my needle tended to gum up after sewing through basting tape. The result was sporadic skipped stitches, which were easily fixed by cleaning up the needle and re-threading.
5. Have backup material and equipment in case something goes wrong (ie an extra spring cap and jewelry file).
I didn’t get a spur in my spring cap during this project, but I did continually have to push the project back due to having insufficient materials and equipment. For example, I didn’t realize that I would need a left roping zipper foot to sew Sailrite’s snap on curtain tape to my curtain panels, so my 2-day curtain project turned into a 2-week project while I had to wait for my goodies to arrive in the mail. There’s almost nothing more frustrating than putting time aside for a project, and not being able to actually start it!

My Two Cents

The only advice I’d add to this list if you’re delving into sunbrella projects is to fabricate or purchase a hot knife to cut through canvas. Initially I used knife-edge scissors (which I love) but I kept on getting stray strands on the edges which made the job look unprofessional. After wising up, I bought a hot knife for about $40 from Seattle Fabric and have been very happy with it!
I made plenty of mistakes during my first sewing project, and I still have a lot to learn before tackling our v-berth cushions, sail covers, and eventually a jib, but I can feel the beginning of a beautiful relationship between me and my Ultrafeed, and I’m excited to be on my path to becoming a self sufficient sewer.
Desiree is a mixed bag of random skills and experiences, all entwined into a life of travel. Currently she is refitting her first sailboat for offshore sailing with her boyfriend, Jordan, and is most likely sweating profusely somewhere in Key West.
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Showing 9 comments
  • Gary T

    Sewing, (Canvas work) is ,I feel, the best most marketable skill for a Lynn & Larry style circumnavigator! Maybe work for a pro for a few months. What auto steer system are you going with? Gary Friday Harbor S/V Silver Fantasy…Photos please on everything you can. I’ve been through basically everything on my hunter 31 over the last 10 yrs. Not the motor however…The life you’ve chosen is the biggest life available on this earth. But as you Know sailors must play it smart… Red Sky In the Morning author lived here in Friday harbor. You should read the book. She needed to head southeast instead of north. Oh my gosh!!! What a mistake that was… Keep on rockin in the free world

    • Desiree

      Great idea re: work for a pro. I’m trying to ease my way into the heart of the sailmaker down the road :) hopefully he’ll let me intern/shadow for a little while! Also true about sewing being a marketable skill! I already have one potential job lined up for settee cushions from a guy on the dock. I told him I need to make some mistakes on ours first! Starting today! Also we have an aeries to answer your steering question

  • Diane Austin

    Your doing fantastic, glad to hear you planning on going out soon…………Much happiness and success………Love ya, Diane

    • Desiree

      Thanks Diane! I’m starting settee cushions today so encouragement is much appreciated :) Jordan has about 2 more weeks of work until we get the mast up but soon we’ll actually be able to sail! Can’t wait!

  • Julee

    I’m proud of you. Sewing is such a great skill to have. I really miss sewing. I am all about a mock-up. People have mocked me for it, but I think one learns a great deal about the project–how well it all works together and so much more. Your curtains are stunning…I can’t wait to see what else you create! If I can help in any way, please let me know!

  • Patrick

    Awesome job Des! They look great!

    • Desiree

      Thanks Patrick!

  • Let It Be

    Excellent piece and the curtains look great. I have dabbled with the idea of doing my own sewing, but I have so many other things I need to learn as we move onto our sailboat that I have put it off for now. Your post tempts me to begin sewing. Good luck with the cushions.

    • Desiree

      Glad to hear it! I’ve been doing my cushion work on the dock and you’d be surprised how many sailors have sailrite ultrafeeds! Its yet another level of support for a newbie :), especially if I have a quick question. Enjoy the BVI’s! Looks beautiful out there!

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