On the Trail of Sail History – the Mycenaeans

When I demonstrate weaving at historic festivals, I try to get people to see how societies have relied on textiles to do so much more than just clothe them fashionably.  One example that helps people realize how textiles have impacted history is the idea that every sail had to be handspun, handwoven, and handsewn.


You can see how one sail is made up of narrower strips of cloth, with their edges overlapped.

I have used that example many times, but other than a memory of reading Forten the Sailmaker when I was a kid, that’s really all I knew about sails.  But last year when I was at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, touring the historic ships, I saw that one of the ships had a huge area two decks deep, set aside for storing the extra sails.

I was amazed at the amount of canvas the ship had to have on hand for emergencies.  It really sparked my curiosity – what fiber are sails made from?  Does sailcloth require special looms or techniques?  Were sailcloth weavers specialized workers?  Or did regular weavers weave up some sailcloth every now and then?  When was the switch to mechanization made?

lines stored aboard ship

My picture of the sail storage area did not come out, but this one of some of the extra ropes did.

If I had known how hard it would be to find answers to my questions, I would have asked for more information when I was at the museum.  When I got home I started to research, but the internet failed me completely!  Of course there is a ton of information on sailing ships – how they were engineered, how the woodworking was done, where the masts came from, how they figured out latitude and longitude (which I am finding totally fascinating too).  I could also find a lot of information on modern day sail-making with computer designs and Kevlar taffeta, but very little on the history of sails.  Even when I went to the Maine Maritime Museum, I couldn’t find out anything more.

In my reading I have found a few intriguing tidbits .  Of course, the more I find out, the more questions I have.

My first clue about sail history came from the book From Minos to Midas: Ancient Cloth Production in the Aegean and in Anatolia, by Brendan Burke, Volume 7 of the Ancient Textiles Series.   (I learned so much from this book about textile production in ancient times, but it is pretty scholarly – after I reread it a few more times so I understand it better, I will pass on some nuggets.)

Let’s start somewhere around 1350 BC with the Mycenaean civilization.  In Knossos on Crete, and in Pylos on the Peloponnesian peninsula, a group of scribes kept receipts of goods received and disbursed by the palace.  The emphasis in Knossos is on wool and sheep (about 100,000 sheep!) and in Pylos on flax and linen, but nobody is really sure why that is.

The scribes wrote their notes on clay tablets, in a syllabic script we now call Linear B. (If you would like to see what it looks like you can go to this chart – look at the first signs in the far left column, rows 6- 9, and you will see the signs for ewe, ram, she-goat, and he-goat.)

There are about a dozen ideograms that have something to do with textiles.  The one called *146 looks like this:


Linear B ideogram *146. It looks like warps dangling from the bottom to me!

Scholars know a lot about what kinds of textiles the different ideograms refer to, but about this one, they’re not even positive whether it means a linen cloth, a wool cloth, or both.  It might have been produced as a tribute or tax, offered in honor of a deity, or used for military purposes.

But here is what Brendan Burke thinks about it:

“…the Linear B evidence suggests that It is an unfinished linen cloth, manufactured throughout the Pylian kingdom, and sent to the palace for finishing by specialists….large amounts of plain linen cloth might have been used as sails for palace-sponsored overseas trade…The Linear B tablets do not provide much information on ship construction but the possibility that the Mycenaeans relied on the subordinate population to manufacture sails seems likely…The best way to ensure an adequate supply would have been to require cloth as a tax and have these staple goods converted into specialized cloths by specialists employed by the palace.”

(This is from the Kindle edition of the book, location 1675, because there are no page numbers.)

Okay, these are some things I had never considered before – that back more than 3000 years ago, people could have been required to weave fabric for their rulers, and that their rulers would then redistribute it or use it for the whole society.

But here are my questions – if you make someone weave some cloth, how much quality assurance do you have?  What happens if there is a bad year for flax or wool?  Whether this cloth was used for tents, tunics under soldiers’ armor, or sails, wouldn’t it have to be pretty uniform to work properly?

I will have to leave you here because in my real life, it is time to start a major household renovation.  But I hope to be back with a story about Viking sails next time!