When I first went to Ratsey’s, they were going to dye sails. So they spent thousands and thousands of dollars on dying sails. And when it came to dyeing, they had one man who was a chemist. He was a college graduate. They put a genoa, a $2,000 all hand-stitched genoa in a vat. And instead of laying it in, they pushed it in and when they took it out and hung it up, it looked like a speckle-ass trout. It was a mess. It was disgusting, and my boss was blowing his cork. Mr. Ernest, oh, he was so mad! – Al Gunner
We used to scrub the sails by hand and then we used to hang them up. Had to get the salt out of them and take the dirt out of them. See, sails get dirty and if you don’t take the salt out, they rot. They get mildewed, especially the sails that were made of cotton years ago. The dacrons are not like that. Those sails don’t mildew. – Al Gunner
In those days (1938) there wasn’t too much of anything. There was hardly any work. So when I went into sailmaking, I got paid 35 cents an hour and then I brought home about $13 a week after taxes. – Al Gunner
When you are a professional sailmaker like Frankie DeSantis and you’re hand-stitching and you did it in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, then you know what you’re doing. The point of his needle was so hot you couldn’t put your finger on it, but his fingers were tough and calloused. He had calluses on both this finger and that finger, so he really didn’t feel it that much. – Al Gunner
When I first went to Ratsey’s, you had to wear white pants, and a tie and a shirt. You had to look like a sailmaker. That changed about 1960. They got different people in there, younger people. They wasn’t too cracked up about wearing ties. – Al Gunner
You had to be liked to get a raise. That’s how they worked it. If the foreman or the superintendent liked you, you got a raise. – Al Gunner
I don’t have a big hand. I don’t have a sailmaking hand. You see, a sailmaker’s hand, it’s big and fat and they can push the needle, a “real man’s hand.” – Al Gunner
Younger fellows came in after the war. They didn’t stay there, they stayed maybe 10 years, 5 years, and they’d quit. Because you see there was no union. It’s a dead-end job. When you got old, out the door you went. No pension, no nothing. – Al Gunner
Now it’s not so much an art as it used to be, oh maybe as far back as 15 years or so ago. Most everything, when I started, was done by hand. After the sails were cut, they were all finished off by hand. We worked on a floor that was about 200 feet long, about 60 feet wide, and there wasn’t a machine on it at that time. And then little by little machining started coming in, and it’s to the point where you do very little handwork on a sail now. – Tony Italiano
Certain jobs took certain times and they just let you do it as long as it was done right when you got finished. That was the only thing that really mattered to them. It had to be right in the end because people were paying a lot of money for it and they expected it to be right, and that’s how we grew up. And the big boss on the shop, who was Ernest Ratsey, he always came out and he always walked up and down the whole sail, and he looked at everything he could look at, because he always had the final say on things being done. They weren’t done until he looked at ‘em and said, “Okay, make ‘em up and put ‘em in the bag.” Then they were done. – Tony Italiano
The old-time sailmakers always had spittoons for their chewing tobacco, the ones that liked to chew.
Mr. Graham, he was the superintendent of Ratsey and Lapthorn, the largest sail company at that time in the world. When I started there, I was what they call a marker because we were still working with cotton sails, and we had the line the edge—the seams of the sails—with a pencil to make the seam, and you used a certain measure and you went down the side of the seam and had to mark off any tightenings or easings for the girls to sew them. – Vera Kehlhoffer
The sail loft was very interesting. First of all, you always had to change your shoes in the morning. You were never allowed in the sail loft proper with street shoes, and you were never allowed to walk on the sails. – Vera Kehlhoffer
We didn’t have any clock in at Ratsey’s—we didn’t even have a clock. When it was time to quit, the upstairs or downstairs would pound on the floor that it was time to quit or time to start. Take a mallet and pound on the floor. But up in the new place, when I was working on a big tarpaulin, for instance, and on the tents too, we could find out what time it was by the sun shining in the window down here. I wrote the time down on the floor. So that was our clock, on the floor. – Jennie Lowndes
Like you would get two, three, four bench men on one cloth sewing it together. They might put as many as five bench men on one sail, finishing it all off together. It was more a unit. In the bench department today, one man grabs a sail, he finishes it off. One girl grabs a sail. She finishes it off by herself.
There were six people in my family, uncles and aunts and my mother, who had worked in Ratsey’s since they were kids. They started there when they were 14, 15, 16 years old. I just sort of drifted into it when I came out of high school, and I stayed there 36 years until Ratsey’s closed, and that was really the only reason I guess I left. –Tony Italiano
We were down to nine people when Ratsey’s finally closed. It was very, very sad. I don’t think anybody could believe it happened, even though we all knew for years, we could see it coming. They kept that huge building going. It was at the time when the fuel and electric costs and everything were absolutely sky high. They told us that we were finished as of 4 o’clock that night and that was at about 3:30 in the afternoon. –Tony Italiano
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Thanks in part to Councilmember James Vacca, CIHS received a larger grant than usual this year from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. This funding will enable us to mount two important exhibitions in the spring—the work of Mark Whitcombe and images of the City Island Bridge. If you have works of art that you would consider lending to either show, please call to let us know. Ron Terner of Focal Point Gallery will be curator of Mark’s show; call him at 718-885-1403. Bridge artists should call 718-885-0507. The show on the yacht building will remain in place until December 18, when we close for the season.