Fourth-Generation Sail-Maker Michele Stevens & Making Sails for the Bluenose II

18 January 2023
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The leech seam of the Bluenose II’s mainsail is ninety-three feet long. That’s as long as a six-story building is tall.

You know this iconic Canadian boat because its likeness is stamped on the dime. In its heyday a hundred years ago, the original Bluenose was the fastest racing schooner in the world. Eventually outpaced by more modern ships, the Bluenose’s sailing days came to an end in 1946, when it sank while hauling freight in the Caribbean.

In Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, in the early 1960s, a groundswell of determination to build a replica of the ship came to fruition with the help of private funding, and the Bluenose II set sail in 1963. In 1971, the province of Nova Scotia acquired the ship for one dollar, and it has since become a tourist attraction and an ambassador of tall ships, sailing, and Canadiana. In 2009–2010 the aging replica was rebuilt entirely, and it set sail again in 2015.

That’s what the Bluenose II is. What, then, is a leech seam? If your knowledge of sailboats is, like mine, limited to what you’ve half-gleaned from reading novels like Swallows and Amazons, prepare to be as wowed as I was when I learned a little about sails and how they’re made.

The leech of a sail is its aft (back) edge. On the mainsail of the Bluenose II—the mainsail of a schooner is its largest of several sails—the leech seam is several inches from the edge, and it’s the longest seam of the sail. It took fourth-generation sailmaker Michele Stevens and her team two-and-a-half hours to sew just that one seam.

image description: two people working on an enormous piece of white fabric - one is operating a sewing machine, the other is holding a roll of the fabric, guiding it and supporting its weight

Fourth-generation sailmaker Michele Stevens (left) sews a seam on the Bluenose II mainsail as a member of her team helps to manage the fabric. Photo courtesy of Michele Stevens.

Sailing on an Icon

In the summer of 2022, my family travelled from Vancouver to attend our dear friend’s wedding in Halifax. It was my first time visiting the Maritimes since moving to Canada twenty years earlier, and we had a fabulous time doing touristy activities, visiting sheep farms, and seeing friends. “Barrett’s Privateers” was sung. More than once.

We spent a day in Lunenburg while we were there, and booked a sailing on the Bluenose II. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and while I’d expected to be regaled by tales of the history of the ship, I was comforted to discover that, instead, we simply had an opportunity to enjoy the craftsmanship of the boat, and some time on the water.

image description: a photograph taken from the deck of a sailboat on the water; the sail is visible at the top, in the distance, you see the dock with colourful buildings and homes

The colourful buildings of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, look like a painting when framed by the boom of the Bluenose II. Photo credit Kim Werker.

We sat near the stern of the ship, cross-legged on a wooden box that was shellacked to a bright shine and, as we would learn not long after setting sail, positioned under the boom of the mainsail. As the crew began to raise the sails, I watched in awe, head tilted toward the sky, as the truly enormous sail unfurled.

image description: the Bluenose sailing boat's sail, taken from the deck

The mainsail of the Bluenose II, as seen from on board. Photo credit Kim Werker.

As the sails were raised, I overheard some locals speaking with the captain. “I’m sorry,” I said to one of them after their conversation ended, “I couldn’t help but overhear. Did you say that the sail was laid out for sewing in the community centre?” She sure had said that, she replied. Speaking with the captain, I learned that the sails were sewn by local sailmaker Michele Stevens and her team. And that, indeed, the mainsail had been laid out in halves in the community centre—the sail was too big, at 4,100 square feet, to be laid out in full.

Upon my return home, I reached out to Stevens, who grew up among sailmakers but resisted joining the family business until she eventually realized that it’s exactly how she wants to spend her time. We had a lovely video call, during which she occasionally flipped her camera around to show me areas in the loft where she makes sails.

Family Business

Growing up the youngest in her large family, Michele loved spending time in Second Peninsula with her dad, Robert Stevens, in the RB Stevens sail loft. Her father was a third-generation sailmaker following in the footsteps of his father, Harold Stevens, and his grandfather, Randolph Stevens. “I was like a crow to shiny things,” Michele said as she reminisced about growing up around the sail loft. “I liked all the brass stuff.” As a teenager, she started sewing her own clothes, and in her early twenties she opened a quilt shop in Mahone Bay, not far from Lunenburg.

One day, Michele’s father asked if she had any interest in taking over the family operation. They had an opportunity to sell the business, but before he’d make the decision, he wanted to know if Michele would take it over. She wasn’t interested and told her father to do what he needed to do to be happy. He sold the business, but not the physical building, to North Sails, which relocated the operation to Lunenburg in 1985. Within a couple of years, the vacated Second Peninsula space was again operating as a sail loft and canvas shop, though—this time led by her uncle, under the business name Peninsula Sail.

image description: an older white man sits on a bench in a workshop, he is looking directly at the camera, a broad smile on his face

Robert Stevens in the sail loft. Photo courtesy of Michele Stevens.

Within a few years, Michele, at this point a chemistry student at Mount Saint Vincent University, felt pulled back toward sail-making. “Deep down, I think I always wanted to make sails, I just needed to explore other options first. The job seemed to have stressed out Dad so much that I didn’t want to get into the business before then.” She asked her uncle if she could use the sail loft to start her own business. He agreed, and Michele left school to establish Michele Stevens Sailloft Ltd, with the full support of her uncle and ongoing, and welcome, advice from her father. “I wanted to use ‘Stevens,’” she told me, “because our name is synonymous with sail-making.”

Think Like a Sail

Quilting and making sails both involve piecing fabric together to make a whole, but Michele was surprised when I asked if she sees similarities between the two. “To me, quilting and sails are two totally different things in a sense,” she explains. “I separate them in my mind, I guess. When I go home and quilt, that’s my relaxation. I think of my skillset of enjoying working with fabric and sewing and everything, and it never really occurred to me that maybe one skill helped another.”

 “I always make an assumption that people know that [a sail] is custom-made,” Michele told me. “I remember having a conversation with Dad when he was cutting out a spinnaker one night, and I said, ‘You know, you almost have to think like a sail in order to be able to build a sail.’ I’ve had customers compliment me saying, ‘You’ve got like a 3D mind.’ And so, I would like to think I—same as Dad—live, eat, and drink making sails. I feel like I’m a keeper of the family tradition.” 

Michele secured her first contract to make sails for the Bluenose II in 2005, before its major rebuild. Such a big job, for such an iconic vessel, just over a decade into her career as a full-time sail maker, was a big deal. When her firm was hired to replace the sails in 2019, she created a documentary to capture the process. As you watch the video, below, note the cubbies cut into the floor of the loft so Michele and her team can sit at floor level to sew. The floor of the loft is the only work surface large enough to accommodate the fabric of larger sails.

Historically, sails were made from Egyptian cotton. Around the 1960s, synthetics took over, and now most sails are constructed from polyethylene terephthalate, a polyester fabric sometimes sold under the brand name Dacron.

Boat-builders get a lot of attention, which is fair, but Michele wishes more credit were given to sailmakers, too, “for the heart and soul that they put into making sails. The Stevenses are hardworking people. David Stevens was a famous boat builder who built Atlantica at Expo ‘67 and went on to build eighty-some boats over his lifetime. My grandfather was a sail maker; his brother, until he died, was a sail maker. My great-aunt, their sister, she was an author and a rug hooker, a painter, and a master gardener. I mean, a lot of talent in this family. It’s just such a privilege to have been born into this family, you know?”

In her hundred-year-old sail loft, Michele Stevens sews sails. She also makes things like tent roofs and massive equipment covers. To her, it’s all in a day’s work, where each day is connected to the days that came before—days her ancestors spent in that same loft, making extraordinary things.

Featured image by Kim Werker; all other image credits as noted.

Copyright © Kim Werker except as indicated.

About Kim Werker

Kim Werker (she/her) is a co-founder and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2004 as an editor, writer, instructor and speaker. She's authored six books about crochet and one about making ugly things on purpose as a creativity exercise. Kim lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and son, and their mutt who's named after a tree.

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