By Ron Leonardi
Erie Times-News, Pa.
A wooden table measuring 28 feet in length and 12 feet wide is filled with canvas earmarked for new sails and canopy covers, and with sails awaiting repairs.
Millcreek Township resident Kim Yamma, 58, and Erieite Rosemary Briggs, 61, are busy at work in the loft of their business, American Cruising Sails.
Their “loft” occupies about 1,500 square feet of basement space in the Frontier Building at 1640 W. Eighth St. Yamma and Briggs share a passion for sailing.
They also possess outstanding sewing skills, so it seemed logical when they and two business partners — A.J. Miceli, 66, of Erie, and Mark Platteter, 55, of Millcreek — launched the sailmaking business in March 2014.
“I had been thinking about doing it for 15 years but never had the resources because it’s not a cheap game to get into,” Yamma said.
The idea of opening the business was hatched among the four partners in the summer of 2013 after an evening of sailboat racing on Presque Isle Bay.
“A.J. had a business he was getting out of and was looking for another,” Yamma said. “He was looking for another business, and we said, ‘Well, let’s open up a sail loft.’ ”
Their business makes new sails and sail covers, and repairs sails, primarily for sailboats.
The women have also done some canvas repair work for powerboats.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from all the people that we sail with,” Briggs said. “We’ve gone to a few of the other yacht clubs, and they’ve shown an interest. A lot of it has been word of mouth.”
They cater to the cruising sailors, and not so much the high-tech racing sails.
They plan to possibly expand to making racing sails as the business grows and they develop their skills.
“Our passion is with sailboats and sails, and that’s what we know,” Yamma said.
Their knowledge has been augmented significantly through help and teaching from renowned sailmaker Dave Bierig, owner of the Erie-based Bierig Sailmakers.
Bierig for the past 50 years has crafted sails for tall ships, sailboats, yachts and classic yachts.
“He has a wealth of knowledge that he’s sharing with us,” Briggs said.
“He’s been so generous to us, because he’s been giving us business that he doesn’t want to do. He’s been teaching us, and it’s wonderful.” Yamma said.
Yamma said Bierig has taught her how to do “things not just OK, but better.”
“We knew how to put a sail together, but he has 50 years of experience to know you can do it that way, but it’s going to last longer if you do it this way, or it’s going to sail better if you tweak it a little bit this way,” Yamma said. “Plus, he’s been teaching me a lot about the old ways of doing things.”
Yamma said Miceli assists the women with plotting and designing of sails.
Both women had extensive sewing skills before they opened the sailmaking loft.
Briggs has three sewing machines at her home; Yamma has five.
“I grew up sewing,” Yamma said. “We’re learning a lot. You never stop learning.”
Briggs also handles a full-time job as a dietitian at HealthSouth of Erie.
Since their opening in 2014, a good portion of their business has centered on repairing sails. They made two new sails in 2014 and six new sails in 2015, Yamma said.
“We’re getting there,” she said. “We’ve got a lot more orders for new sails than we had in the first year because people didn’t know us. We didn’t have a reputation.”
Yamma said the business has broke even in its first two years of operation.
“We’re paying the bills,” she said. “None of us are making any money yet. We love doing it, and we’re staying afloat. … There’s always more equipment that you need. I think we’re finally getting to the point where we’ll be able to do more than just pay the bills.”
The women believe they have expanded their clientele base to where they expect to make a profit in 2016.
“We have a lot more projects going on this winter than we had last winter,” Yamma said.
The women are gearing up for their most high-profile winter undertaking — making a new tan canopy, measuring 24 feet by 40 feet, for the U.S. Brig Niagara.
“There’s ropes surrounding the entire thing that have to be hand-sewn,” Briggs said.
Seeing their future handiwork on Erie’s iconic flagship is something they take great pride in.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Briggs said. ‘I’ve already told my kids that we’re going to be part of that and part of the Niagara’s history.”
On a recent day in their loft, the women’s work table was littered with hand bags, totes, wine bags and duffel bags they crafted from old, donated sails.
They sell their goods through a subsidiary business called Vela Bags, which they began in the winter of 2014-15.
“Vela is the constellation in the southern sky that is the sail of the ship Argo,” Yamma said.
When they hit a lull in activity in 2014, the women got creative.
“It was pretty slow, so we said we need some money coming in,” Yamma said. “We had to do something. We had old sails, so we started making bags.”
All of their business has come by word of mouth.
“We’ve had people come in off the street and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I heard there was a new sail loft in town,’ and they just come down to check us out,” Yamma said.