It was only a few years ago that Amy Poe, owner of Wyckam Fabric Creations, in Portland, Ore., started hearing about shade sails. Now the company is doing elaborate shade sail projects like this shade cover for the Big Toy Playground at Keizer Rapids Park in Keizer, Ore. Photo: Wyckam Fabric Creations.

For something that’s been around for thousands of years—as far back as the Roman Colosseum, if not longer—shade sails in North America have a reputation as “the new kid on the block.”

While using tensioned sails to provide shade for both commercial and residential structures has been a function of fabrication shops in North America for at least a couple decades and for much longer in Australia and other places with intense heat, a number of factors—including, not surprisingly, the pandemic—have significantly increased their popularity. 

People needed more places to gather safely outdoors, and shade sails proved in many cases to be the perfect way to block the sun. But generally warming temperatures have also made sun blocking devices necessary where they weren’t before, and improvements in fabric durability, allowing them to last longer while being exposed to the sun, have also spurred the trend.

Amy Poe, owner of Wyckam Fabric Creations in Portland, Ore., spun her company off from North Sails Oregon a few years ago as demand for fabrication outside the marine industry grew. One product? Shade sails.

“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?’”

This colorful array of shade sails over a playground in Keizer, Ore., a project of Wyckam Fabric Creations, demonstrates two of the most appealing aspects of shade sails—functionality and aesthetics.

“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 on how to make them. 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.”

This article highlights the recent projects of four shade sail makers, including Poe. Each project encountered specific challenges and the sail makers discuss how they responded to those challenges and offer their thoughts on the shade sail industry’s prospects.

Playground predicament

When Poe’s shop was recently called upon by the city of Keizer, Ore., to provide shade cover for the Big Toy Playground at Keizer 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. 

Shade sail projects can require the elaborate planning of any fabrication project. One of the challenges of this playground project was installing the shade sails after the playground was already completed. Photos: Wyckam Fabric Creations.

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.

Shape-shifting structure

Robin DuBroy, director of operations for Shazeebo, which makes shade sails in San Marcos, Calif., believes that growth in the shade sail industry is really just beginning. “Every time a new shade sail goes up, and someone walks underneath it, they look at it and they want one for their house, or their restaurant, or for the neighborhood park.”

DuBroy, who will be presenting at the 2021 IFAI Expo in Nashville, Tenn., says perhaps the biggest general challenge of installing shade sails is that “customers want you to put them where they think the shade is going to be, not where the shade actually falls.” 

This restaurant dome is stunning architecture—but required a shade sail from Shazeebo, in San Marcos, Calif., to keep the sun off customers. One challenge for the company was incorporating the restaurant’s intricate logo into the sail, which is made of Gale Pacific Commercial 95®. Photo: Shazeebo.

That’s where digital tools can come in handy, she explains. “On the computer, you can mimic how the sun moves across the sky, how the shadows move and where they are going to get their shade.”

But each project generally has its own special challenges, DeBroy says. A recent test for Shazeebo involved not only construction issues, but pressure due to the project’s visibility.

“A new restaurant, Portside Pier, was replacing a famous place, Anthony’s Fish Grotto, on the downtown San Diego waterfront,” she explains. “The new space really needed to impress everyone, because they were all watching to see what was going to replace this icon, whether it was going to be worthy.”

The project’s architect designed a stunning geodesic dome that maintained an open and unobstructed view of both the San Diego Bay and the downtown skyline, but a shade sail would be required to keep the sun from beating down on the restaurant’s customers.

Photo: Shazeebo.

“We had to deal with the fact that this dome was a really unique shape,” DuBroy says. “The top of the dome has this curve that is sort of oval but not quite, not exactly a perfect shape. There were a lot of conversations about how many attachments were going to be used and how they would be attached. It took a lot of measurements to get it right.”

But it wasn’t until the planning was well along that the project’s most distinctive element was added. “During one of our planning sessions, our head of sales, Gregg Burrows, suggested putting the restaurant’s logo on the shade sail. The restaurant loved the idea.”

It’s an intricate logo, so a lot of the planning revolved around the size, direction of the lettering, and whether the pelican should face the harbor or the downtown, according to DuBroy. 

“But the real issue was that shade sails stretch, of course, and each fabric stretches in a little different way,” she says. “So you can’t screenprint on the shade sail fabric because it will distort the image. You have to cut out a spot from the shade sail and then sew the graphic in with different fabric.”

Even that was no challenge compared to actually installing the fabric, DuBroy says, because it had to be done while the restaurant was being completed. “We had to find the largest boom lift in the U.S., 150 feet tall, so it could reach the bay side of the structure from the boardwalk. It was something. Even with all the design, attachment and logistical challenges, the end result is a San Diego icon for the next 50 years.”

This shade sail was created in 2020 by SHADE Industries in Tucson, Ariz., to cover an outdoor lunchroom at a Tucson middle school. The 1,848-square-foot sail, made of Polyfab Architec 400®, provides additional dining space for 30 to 40 students while maintaining social distancing. Photo: SHADE Industries.

Middle school meal cover

SHADE Industries, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., has been doing almost exclusively shade sails since 2004, which makes owner Conrad Masterson a veteran in the industry. But as successful as the company had been, he saw signs going into 2020 that the year could be even better, and he planned accordingly. “We went into the year with high expectations and lofty goals for growth. We staffed up and ordered another new truck.”

Of course, we all know what happened in 2020, and Masterson says the new truck still remains mostly unused. But considering the circumstances, he’s not complaining. “We had a couple of projects that were in the works for a couple of years but weren’t ready to be started until 2020. That helped. Plus, the economy ended up being OK, construction was good—and shade sails were as popular as they’ve ever been.”

Plus, there were jobs like the outdoor lunchroom space that SHADE Industries was asked to do for the Orange Grove Middle School in Tucson. 

“In Arizona, most schools use outdoor space for hallways, common areas or other things. They wanted space between the library and café for additional dining space,” Masterson says. “We were able to use the buildings for anchor points, rather than having to put in a bunch of steel columns. That meant more shade for less money.”

At 1,848 square feet, it’s a big sail, Masterson says, allowing 30 or 40 students to dine and still maintain social distancing. 

“The job helped us stay busy, but the reality is that we did the project for the cost of our raw materials and labor,” Masterson says. “It was a way to help the schools.”

These linked triangle sails, created by Shade Sails Canada, Revelstroke, B.C., provide shade at the Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Canada. Linking the sails was key to creating the optimum hyperbolic shape and beauty of the project. Photo: Shade Sails Canada.

Showy winery shelter

Brydon Roe, owner of Shade Sails Canada, located in Revelstoke, B.C., Canada, leaves no doubt about his professional hockey sentiments when he discusses one of his company’s signature projects.  

“It was creating linked triangle sails to create shade at Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery [in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Canada], for the greatest hockey player to ever play the game,” Roe says.

“The key feature was the linked sails,” Roe says. “If there were no links, the triangles would be flat with more gap in between. The linked sails, made of Monotec, create the optimum hyperbolic shape, and they look amazing.”

While Shade Sails takes on such commercial projects, Roe says the company is proud to also cater to homeowners who “may not want to spend $2,000 for someone to come out and put posts in to attach a shade sail to their house.

“They want to tackle it themselves, like building a deck or a shed,” Roe explains. “People can watch our YouTube videos or call us up and have us walk them through how to put up their shade purchase.” 

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

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