Nova Scotia entrepreneur turns old sails into trendy messenger bags

The ’upcycling’ effort has diverted 225,000 kg of old sail cloth from the landfill
photograph my jenna marie wakani

It’s a chilly midwinter day in Lunenburg, N.S., and the furnace at the Windbag Company has stopped working. Bundled in a down jacket, surrounded by piles of crinkled sailcloth, Pauline Dickison is wandering through her store, telling stories. This notebook cover? Made from an old sail retrieved from the tall ship SV Concordia before it sank off the coast of Brazil in 2010. That messenger bag? Covered in sailcloth from Tekema, a 22-foot, Ontario-built boat that still sails, happily, from a local yacht club.

This entrepreneur’s story starts in late 2006, when a huge storm slammed into the picturesque Maritime town and the large plastic tent that sheltered Dickison’s boat was swept away. “Suddenly, the boat was bare and the tent was in the trees,” she says.

From the ruined material, she and a friend sewed bags to give as Christmas presents. By spring, she was selling them at a local garden centre, and Dickison knew she was going to run out of tent. “I thought, ‘What’s another tough material that could use another life?’ And then it dawned on me. Sails.”

While “upcycling” has long been a popular trend among eco-fashionistas, and there are a few other companies out there—notably in Maine and British Columbia—doing a similar business, when Dickison sewed her first bag, she had no idea old sails were so useful.

“Everybody has blown-out [stretched-out] sails, and what do you do with a blown-out sail? Sometimes they cover piles of wood,” she says with a laugh.

The model is simple: sailors and repair shops give Dickison their irrevocably broken and old sails. Her small team of local seamstresses wash the fabric, cut it with patterns and sew all kinds of bags, including messenger bags, duffel bags, shave kits, yoga-mat bags and even an EpiPen holder co-designed by a 12-year-old with severe allergies. Sail donors get a free bag of their choice as a memento, and the rest are for sale.

Hal Whitehead, a renowned whale researcher and Dalhousie University professor, owns a messenger bag made from a sail taken from his 40-foot boat, Balaena. He says the bond that sailors have with the ocean and to their sails is a profound part of Dickison’s business. “Sails are a major part of one’s connection to the environment,” says Whitehead. “You spend a lot of time looking at the sail, because that’s how you decide how to set them.” The Balaena is on the ocean a few months every year, says Whitehead, and the sails get lots of wear and tear. “That means they get to Pauline.”

Her headquarters, a 1950s car dealership backing onto the Atlantic, is half retail space, half workshop. Bags of used zippers, stacks of seatbelts ripped out of junkyard cars and pieces of discarded canvases donated by Halifax’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University hang from every surface. In the guest book are names from places as distant as Hong Kong, Scotland, and New Zealand.

Over the past five years, Dickison estimates the company has diverted more than 225,000 kg of sail cloth from the landfill. When she takes her bags on the road, most recently to Toronto’s One of a Kind Show, people can’t get rid of their old sails fast enough. “It was hilarious, watching this lovely woman pull up in her big black Mercedes on her way to the symphony, and she’s humping this old sail out of her car for me,” says Dickison. “Then again, these are just piling up in people’s places.”

For those in the market, a new sail can cost thousands of dollars. “We were giving this man and his wife their complimentary bag, and the wife said, ‘It’s beautiful, I just love it,’ says a smiling Dickison. “Her husband responded, ‘It’s the only $2,700 bag you’re ever going to get.’”

Nova Scotian Pat Nelder, who grew up sailing the 31-foot Hornpipe with her father in the late 1960s, recently stumbled across its old sail and gave it to Dickison. “Sails do hold stories,” she says, recounting the time, as a 22-year-old, she was caught in a wicked thunderstorm off the coast of Massachusetts. “I look at this bag and remember all these silly girls on that boat and being hit by lightning. I used to have to furl this thing,” she adds. “Now it’s a wallet.”