Meet the Maker: John Clark of the Kingston Sail Loft

By Sara Smith

Even when the sky is cloudy, John Clark dreams in bright blues and whites. A lifelong boat enthusiast and sailmaker for almost 30 years, John has been providing quality handmade sails to Kingston’s boating community since 1988. With summer almost upon us, he’s been working harder than ever to outfit local sailors for the 2017 season.

John wasn’t always a Kingstonian, but was plenty aware of our rich sailing community from an early age.

“I’ve been coming to CORK (Canadian Olympic Regatta, Kingston – an annual regatta hosted in town) since I was about seven years old,” he says. “I’ve always loved Kingston, and it’s such a windy spot.”

He got his sailmaking start at Toronto’s North Sails in 1983, learning the ropes in a fast-paced, high-production environment. “When I worked in Toronto, it was the largest production loft in the world at the time,” he says. “It was a good way to learn, but it’s not what I wanted to do in the end.” In 1988, he made the move to K-town in search of a smaller, more hands-on experience, and set up shop as JC Sails, before partnering with Andy Soper to open the Kingston Sail Loft in 1999. “Andy is now semi-retired, and I’m running the shop on my own,” he says.

Some of John’s designs in action. Photo via Kingston Sail Loft.
John hard at work. Photo via Kingston Sail Loft.

An important characteristic of John’s operation is that every sail is handmade with care and passion, by someone who truly understands and loves sailing. While technology has created more convenient means of production, he prefers to stick to tried-and-true methods.

“I am not a computer guy. I learned to make sails using a stick on the floor, and I still make all my sails using a stick on the floor,” he says. “After fifty years of sailing, and thirty years of sailmaking, you become a pretty confident sailmaker.”

John says that the art of sailmaking is what keeps him passionate about his work. “I love building sails. It’s really a creative thing,” he says. “They’re all a little bit different – you get to pick your own materials, and change little things here and there, and you go through stages of making them just like an artist would. Every day here is different.”

He also shares his excitement for being able to help sailors stay on the water. “People come in here with damaged sails, and they’re really appreciative of the fact that I can fix them up, turn them around, and get them back out on the water,” he says. “I love that.” With so few other shops in the area – John is the only sailmaker in Kingston – he is single-handedly helping to keep Kingston’s sailing community afloat.

Sail bags, ready to go. Photo via Kingston Sail Loft.

His decision to build a sailmaking business in K-town was certainly no accident. “I definitely chose this city to set up shop,” says John. “The sailing community is huge, and it stretches out really far – there’s so many people from Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal who take up space here, as well as locals.” With the price of nearby cottages and waterfront properties on the rise, John predicts that the local boating community will only continue to grow. “There’s a lot more people getting into it – you can get a really decent boat for $10,000.”

The growing market, combined with his reputation for quality work, means that John is rarely sitting idle. But his other passion – actually getting out on the water himself – is never far from his mind. “Business is great right now, and I’m having fun! But I’m working 6 days a week, and hope to change that,” he says. He’s currently in the process of training an apprentice, with the hopes of having a bit more free time for himself.

“Hopefully soon I can get to a point where it’s blowing 17 knots from the southwest and I can get out and go kiting.”