Sailmaking

It seemed like every kid on City Island at some time or another worked in Ratsey’s. No matter what they wound up doing in their life, I think mostly all of them started out in Ratsey’s. back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, so many of them passed through Ratsey’s at one time or another. It was an art at that time. Now it’s not as arty as it used to be. – Tony Italiano

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.
Walter Scanlon

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


Now the men cut these great big, beautiful, tremendous sails for the 12-meter racing boats, and they cut sails for all the other big boats, like the “Miala.” And the next thing you notice, there were synthetic materials coming in. On the third floor, where we worked, was the cutting department. And of course they had sails and they had what they call spinnakers. Now to me this was all new and oh, so fantastic, and so beautiful because they had colors an they were light and airy and they would just blow around. – 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.
Walter Scanlon

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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