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sailmaking tool

Jake Graves ’70


Although I’ve been a sailmaker for most of my career, in large part it has been a job like any other. My body is tired now from the constant physical demands of the work. Though I’m good at it, sail making has never captured my imagination. I’ve always been a reliable, productive worker, but never made more than $40,000 a year.

In short, one certainly didn’t need to go to Swarthmore to become a sailmaker. An apprenticeship would have sufficed. I’m sure there aren’t any other grads working as sailmakers; we’re much like the dinosaurs—nearly extinct.

So I chuckled when I received an email from the Bulletin. I always enjoy its profiles of students and graduates—reading about their distinguished lives that were inevitably sparked by this professor or by that exciting and stimulating honors seminar.

My college experience was nothing like that. After excelling in high school in academics and athletics, I was accepted everywhere I applied and chose Swarthmore because it offered the largest scholarship, which I desperately needed. Unfortunately, I foundered at college. With no clear goal and left on my own for the first time with total freedom, I drifted from major to major: physics to comparative religion to finally English literature in order to graduate.

I’m not sure if any of my professors noticed my quiet presence. I enjoyed the physical beauty of the campus, but friendships faded after graduation, and eventually disappeared altogether. I never attended any functions or reunions, and after my kids went to other schools, I made any modest donations to their alma maters. I do always happily receive Swarthmore’s annual calendar and hang it promptly on the wall.

As for sail making ... most arrive in the job after growing up on the family boat or at a local yacht club. I came at it from a different direction. A friend who had worked for a large local sailmaker with a dubious reputation decided he needed to learn from the best national company with an excellent reputation. I tagged along for a day trip to Hood Sailmakers in Marblehead, Mass., for a job interview. Naturally, they hired my friend, but they also offered me a job.

A year or so later, I had successfully worked my way through a few different departments, but boredom was rearing its familiar head. My optimistic friend decided we should take our newfound skills, return home, and open our own sail loft. With financial backing from my friend’s brother, we opened Anderson and Graves Sailmakers in a fourth-floor loft with a rickety elevator and a single small industrial sewing machine. A few years after getting into the trade, we bought a small racing dinghy and I finally learned to sail.

The most noteworthy thing about our enterprise was our crisp logo, contributed by a graphic designer friend. We were selling some sails, but we were doomed by our rudimentary business abilities and even worse sales prowess. After my partner decamped to law school, I lasted a few more months and then went to work for another small local sailmaker.

For 40 or so years, with some breaks and detours, I’ve been doing the same thing ever since. I’ve always been the maker, the person who cuts out, puts together, sews up, and finishes off the sails. When a sail is laid out on the floor for inspection, I can always recognize my own work from a pattern of stitching, the finishing touches on a corner, or some other idiosyncrasy.

I retired a few months ago to rest my sore arms and knees. As I kayak and paddleboard around the bay, I often see boats flying sails I’ve made, and I’m sure many will outlive me. Swarthmore has produced many Rhodes Scholars, successful entrepreneurs, and distinguished professors, but sailmakers—those are rare birds indeed.


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