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Shade sails on land and sea

Feature | September 1, 2021 | By:

A blast of color is a good thing when your fabric is adorning a playground, like these shade sails designed by Wyckam Fabric Creations in Keizer, Ore. But the growth in popularity of shade sails has as much to do with function as it does with form. Photo: Wyckam Fabric Creations.

Honing your math skills can open up new markets.

By Jeff Moravec

On the way to becoming the owner of Wyckam Fabric Creations in Portland, Ore., Amy Poe developed a set of eclectic skills that have come in handy in the wide world of fabrication. She earned degrees in physics and Spanish and specialized in failure analysis as an engineer at TriQuint Semiconductor before joining North Sails Oregon, owned by her husband, Kerry Poe, in early 2000.

It soon became apparent there was a demand for fabrication services outside the marine industry. With her nascent success in integrating modern technology using 3D digitizing, CAD design, and automated plotting and cutting, Poe decided to open North Winds Canvas as a custom industrial sewing shop, which is now called Wyckam.

A fabrication business can take unexpected twists and turns, Poe discovered. 

Installing shade sails on this playground was a “massive undertaking,” says Wyckam Fabric Creations owner Amy Poe, but the proof is in the pudding—the results were striking. Photo: Wyckam Fabric Creations.

How expansion happens

“When you have an industrial sewing machine, people start coming in asking if you can do this or if you can do that,” Poe says. “So, if you’ve got the machine, the space and the time, you start making other things. One day a few years back someone walked in and asked if we’d ever made shade sails, not sails. We said, ‘What’s that?’”

“We’d never heard of them,” Poe says with a laugh.

“It took a couple of years before we actually made some for anyone,” she explains. “We went to a seminar and got educated. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have gotten there. They aren’t difficult but they have their own unique quirks, and you have to understand those quirks to make them successfully.”

Now, Wyckam has done shade sails for projects on both land and sea, including oceangoing yachts (and in fact the company now uses a shade sail in its logo).

How important is shade sail placement? “They offer shade, but not as much of it as people think,” says Wyckam owner Amy Poe. “It’s so important to know how to position the sail to get the shade people want. It’s all about engineering.” Photo: Wyckam Fabric Creations.

Tension is really the key in shade sails, says Poe. “People will just string them up here and there and sort of let them sway in the wind,” she says. “But with those kinds of shades, you have to be ready to take them down. Quick up and down, and I personally don’t call that a shade sail. To me, it’s something tensioned out at its corners rather than just hanging.”

In addition, she says, “You need to know how to build them. You need to make them smaller than the space they’re going into and then they stretch out to size. You also need to understand what they can actually do for you. They’re not rain protection and they are not a canopy. They offer shade, but not as much of it as people think. It’s so important to know how to position the sail to get the shade people want.”

Doing shade sails on land naturally leads to shade sails on boats and vice versa, says Wyckam owner Amy Poe. She says the shade sails on yachts are like shade sails on land, with large posts, the difference being the use of stainless steel instead of steel for the posts. Photo: Wyckam Fabric Creations.

Math matters

“It’s all about engineering,” Poe says. “You have to be willing to do the math and the 3D CAD to get a successful design. If there’s more than three or four points, you have to be able to do math on your own and dive into it. I’ve been doing this for so long I know how to tackle it, but I probably wouldn’t be doing it without the digital tools.”

Doing shade sails on land naturally leads to shade sails on boats and vice versa, Poe says, although most of Wyckam’s work so far has been for the largest of boats. 

Industry jargon can be inconsistent, by the way. On small boats, shade sails can often be called an aft awning or an aft fly. “But I call them shade sails if they are shade sails, attached at corners and tensioned up,” Poe says.

Tension is really the key in shade sails, says Wyckam owner Amy Poe: “People will just string them up here and there and sort of let them sway in the wind. I personally don’t call that a shade sail. To me, [a shade sail is] something tensioned out at its corners rather than just hanging.” Photo: Wyckam Fabric Creations.

The shade sails on yachts are like shade sails on land, with large posts, the difference being the use of stainless steel instead of steel for the posts. Smaller boats may use carbon fiber to save weight, with a telescoping configuration so the poles can be stashed in rod holders or other out-of-the-way locations when not in use.

Poe says the biggest difference between shade sails on land and at sea is “on land we try to make them not so two-dimensional; we try to give them shape. On boats, they are more likely to look flat, like an awning.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.


SIDEBAR: Shade sails in demand on land

Land-based shade sails have grown in popularity in the past few years for several reasons, including the attention people paid to their homes during the pandemic as they sought places to gather out of doors. Shade sails in public spaces have also grown in popularity as generally warming temperatures have made sun-blocking devices necessary where they weren’t before. And improvements in the durability of fabrics while being exposed to the sun have also contributed to the trend.

When Amy Poe’s shop, Wyckam Fabric Creations, in Portland, Ore., was recently called upon by the city of Keizer, Ore., to provide shade cover for the Big Toy Playground at Rapids Park, she found an immediate challenge. 

“The place is amazing, but they thought it would be easy to put in the shade sails after the fact, which is not usually the way it’s done.”

According to Poe, that meant, for example, that large equipment needed to dig holes for the sail posts would not have room to maneuver between playground pieces. And because the ground was covered with rubberized matting, she says, plywood had to be put down during construction to protect it from damage. 

In addition, walkways and play structure entrances and exits needed to be kept clear, with no posts. Footings under play structures had to extend at least 18 inches, and post footings also had to be at least 18 inches, so any posts had to be at least 36 inches from play structures. Also, shade sails cannot go over tall play structures, to keep structural costs lower, and posts should be kept low when possible for ease of annual installation and removal. 

“It was a pretty massive undertaking,” Poe says. “But once everything was sorted out, it was pretty straightforward, and it looks fantastic.”

Wyckam used Monotec 370 shade cloth with lifetime polytetra fluoroethylene (PTFE) thread for the project, which ended up being about 2,300 square feet over five sails.

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