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Turning Old Sails into Treasure with Nutmeg Designs

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New sails are on nearly everyone’s list at the start of each Caribbean regatta season. So, what do you do with your old sails? Donate them to Nutmeg Designs, a sustainable home-furnishings and eco-accessories business based in Road Town, Tortola, where owner Annie MacPhail makes them into fashionable travel and tote bags.

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Annie MacPhail
Annie MacPhail of Nutmeg Designs

MacPhail, who hails from the U.S. state of Connecticut, studied design and marketing in college. In the early 1990s she accepted an offer to work at BVI Yacht Sales. The position and place offered her the best of both worlds: a chance to work in the yachting industry, which she loved, and to use her free time to paint, design and sail. Over the past several years, she developed a line of travel and tote bags made out of discarded cotton tarpaulin that she reconditioned, dyed and embroidered.

“The first fabric I used for upholstery came from Brazil,” she explains. “As I further developed this line, I looked for other sustainable materials that would work for our designs and also looked right in our own back yard rather than perpetuating the cycle of waste by importing. That’s when we considered the availability and viability of Dacron, nylon and polyester sailcloth. The BVI is one of the largest sailing charter destinations and certainly has its share of used sail cloth, much of which is discarded when it is old.”

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Sailbags made by Annie MacPhail and Nutmeg Designs

MacPhail invested in tools and sewing machines and started creating products using the sailcloth. She called the island’s sail makers. Doyle and Quantum gave her discarded sails and continue to do so. She is also in contact with the Charter Yacht Society and other BVI-based charter companies who generally call to notify MacPhail when they have a disposed of sail. In addition, any sailor who is discarding a sail can give her a call. She’ll pick it up, use it and in return give the donator several bags.

Once MacPhail has the sails, she cuts and sorts them. The luff and leach lines are pulled and re-used in various ways. Any hardware that can be kept and re-used is also cut out and kept. Then, she cuts the sail into usable pieces, washes it and stores it by weight. She then is able to pick through her inventory for the exact pieces that will work best for a particular design.

Sailcloth … Art and Science

MacPhail’s sailcloth line includes various types of totes, wine bags, clothing hampers, small buckets for things like towel storage and large buckets for clothing hampers or shoe baskets on yachts.

“Many companies the world over make these types of standard utilitarian bags,” MacPhail explains. “Where we are unique is that I try to think outside the box when using this fabric. I have several bag designs which are more stylish in terms of what women want for a more fashionable handbag. I have developed pendant lights, table lamps and lampshades, storage hangers, even Christmas ornaments and stockings. We try to use as much of the sail as we can. In addition, we are able to brand the products we make out of sailcloth. For example, we just completed 300 totes and wine bags for the BVI Wine and Food Festival in November.”

In addition to her sailcloth line, MacPhail’s Nutmeg Designs shop carries a line of rugged furniture made out of reclaimed wood from retired Indian Ocean sailing dhows. While she does import several brands of eco-friendly products, many of her custom one-off pieces are created from marine objects found in the BVI. She has converted authentic bronze portholes into mirrors, antique Victorian oar locks into curtain rod brackets and rowing oars into key and coat/hat racks. A particular customer favorite is mini decorative table size Christmas trees made out of collected beach rope. This is a great use for this colorful and highly hazardous free-floating rope that can cause damage to boats and maim and kill sea creatures.

“Our motto is: Doing good through our goods,” MacPhail says. “Whether one is donating a sail that might otherwise end up in a landfill or overburdened incinerator, or purchasing gifts at our shop, everything has a story and is helping a community become greener and healthier, either here or abroad.”

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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