Following up on Viking SailsBack in 2013, I visited the Maritime Museum in San Diego, California, and aboard one of the historic ships I saw a huge storage area set aside for extra rigging and sails, and it got me thinking about the textile half of sailing ships. As I said then:
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?
I actually researched for a year before I wrote this post about sails in the Mycenaean world, and then a post about Viking sails. And in the two years since then, I have kept an eye out for more information on sails and sailmakers. It is harder to find than I ever thought it would be!
One note that interested me most was a story in the Spring 2011 issue of Wild Fibers magazine, in an article on Gute sheep. I can’t find that issue now, but I remember a quote something like this:
Archaeologists made replica Viking sails out of Gotland wool, and their ships sank, and then they made them out of Gute wool, and the ships sailed.
I really wanted to know how critical it would be to use the wool of just one certain breed, and also, I wondered if the archaeologists really waited until they had full-size ships to try the sails out. It seems to me that you would make some models first. Also, how could you be sure it was just the wool that caused the sinking?It’s interesting to see how the research has grown over the years.
This 1996 account is by Amy Lightfoot, an expert on woolworking traditions in Norway and the Shetland Islands. When a 650-year-old sail was found stuffed between rafters in a church ceiling as insulation, she was the one put in charge of creating a replica. She had years of experience in interviewing elderly craftspeople about traditional skills, and for her, reconstructing the sail was a framework that helped her link bits of information together into an overall picture of sail-making technique.
She says that in the early summer, people gathered up the indigenous sheep (she doesn’t mention any particular breeds) for rooing, which is plucking the loose wool from the sheep, rather than shearing. Wool from different parts of the sheep was sorted and set aside for uses as varied as shawls, work clothes, and sails.Once autumn set in and the nights got longer, the stored fleeces were brought out and the locks opened, the long guard hairs separated from the downy undercoat, with men, women, and children working on the task by the light of the fire. After this step, the wool was ready for combing and/or carding, and neighbors would gather to share the work and then have a celebratory dance.
Now the prepared wool was spun on drop spindles. The strong guard hairs were spun clockwise to be used for warp, to make the sail strong enough to withstand the wind, and the softer wool was spun counterclockwise to be used for a weft that would shrink and full to make the sail windtight.
Next it was woven in a twill structure on vertical looms. Lightfoot says the weaving width was about 2 feet wide. After weaving the cloth was fulled, then the individual lengths were sewn together by a sailmaker. Finally the “finished sail was treated with a mixture of fir-tar, fish oil, and sheep’s tallow, brushed onto the sail to keep it windproof and water repellent.”This year a story about the woolen sails was published in Hakai magazine: No Wool, No Vikings. Journalist Claire Eamer sailed to an island with a group of Norwegian students, to gather a flock of sheep and roo their fleece. Her article includes lots of pictures, and brings up another point about the impact of these sails:
Textile archaeologist [Lise Bender] Jørgensen says the introduction of sails must have greatly increased the demand for wool and grazing land. Norway-based historical textile researcher Amy Lightfoot has even speculated that the demand for pastureland might have driven the Viking expansion as much as the gleaming temptations of stolen treasure and legitimate trade.
Just how much wool was needed? This thesis goes into the details of figuring it out. (The page looks like it has a paywall, but if you scroll down the whole paper is there.)
I have also read the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown (and that very interesting book needs its own post), and according to it, a 1000-square-foot replica sail took almost a million feet of thread (100 square meters; 300,000 meters of thread), and it took two women four and a half years to make, using the wool of more than 200 sheep.
And as more ship burials are discovered, far from Scandinavian lands, researchers are theorizing that the need for sails might have been a factor in Viking explorations and raids. This article in Science magazine (April 2016) says that it’s possible that they were capturing slaves to bring home for forced labor for their fleet of ships. (Which would be sort of a fruitless cycle — you need sails, so you go out to capture slaves to weave the sails, so you need more sails for your next voyages…)
So I have not yet found any more information on specific wool breeds for sailcloth, but it does seem that the sails and sailmakers are getting some attention that is their due.
From the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark:
Woolen Sailcloth — a good explanation of different details of materials and techniques, but no illustrations or swatches.
A weaver working on sails (although they show her sewing, not weaving, and they only mention the fiber prep of flax and don’t go on to explain anything about weaving).
Hurstwic is an organization which teaches Viking combat methods, but their website also has a sizable reference section on Viking ways of life, including a very nice page on cloth-making. There is a long article on Viking ships. It has only a short mention of the sails, but the information on how the ships were built is well-illustrated and very interesting.
One thing I would never have thought of is that the shipbuilders went out to the forests and looked for trees that were already growing in the shapes they needed for certain parts of the ship. Small models of ships have been found, which apparently were used to show the building crews what kind of branches and trunks to look for. The natural grain of these curved pieces resulted in ship parts that were stronger than if they had been carved from straight-grained wood. We produce timber on our farm and nowadays the only ones that sell are the very straight ones — it was interesting to me to read about a use for curved and crooked ones.
Were all those sail weavers willing wives? Or possibly slaves stolen from other lands? A recent article in Science magazine.
Wow!!!!Such an interesting post. I’ve come across little tidbits regarding trade and woven sails when reading about the Etruscans.
If you can find those sources, would you please let me know? I would be so interested!
What a great post……..you have done such diligent work and I love reading it. And we complain about our chores…….haha I will send this on to other like minded folk. Thanks again.
Thank you! You know how it is, when you get interested in something, you start noticing it everywhere. I was never that interested in Vikings before, but I like finding out about their sail technology, how they traveled to trade for silk, etc.
Their chores were bad enough but in the winter they were stuck inside and their longhouses were only about 20 feet by 40 feet — that is the same size as my house but I don’t have to share it with 10 other people for the winter!
ARGH, 20X40 feet and 10 other people? I’d have to slit my wrists…………heehee before they slit mine!! Am a bit of a hermitess…….that’s a word right?
It is now!
Very interesting, including the notion that different types of sheep or goats were essential in whether a ship would sail or not. Slightly related thought — yesterday morning while we walked, a ginger tabby cat joined us, as if it would just walk home with us. I reached down and scritched it. Its fur was coarse and bristly. The tabby cats we had long ago had very different fur. One had silky smooth fur, very straight. The other, its littermate, had an overcoat and an undercoat. The undercoat was rather downy but each strand was hooked at the end. Certainly if three tabby cats can have such different fur from each other, wools must have different characteristics, too.
Yes, I am enough of a spinner to know that different types of sheep have different wool, but not enough of a spinner to know which breed has which characteristics, and certainly not enough to recognize the wool types from the different parts of the animal! The difference between the Gute and Gotland seemed pretty small to me though, and I was wondering if there was enough difference between those historic breeds to matter. I will just have to keep looking for information, one way or another.
Also I really want to weave small sails and try them out on model boats! 🙂
When I mentioned your post to my husband he noted that the Vikings had precious little else to use besides wool. Even flax won’t tolerate the harsh short growing season. That got me thinking about how what’s available shapes a culture, and how we may undervalue past cultures because their artifacts haven’t lasted. Thanks for the fascinating and thought provoking window on a past culture.
You are very welcome.
I read that the men went walrus hunting and clubbed hundreds of them, and then made the rigging ropes out of their skin! They also shaped their boats with axes because they didn’t have saws. Maybe the wool work was the easy part of the job for them. I know I would have just wanted to stay home, but then, with that short growing season, I would have starved.
This is fascinating! Love this post!
Yay! Glad you liked it!
Reblogged this on Truth Troubles: Why people hate the truths' of the real world.
Your curious mind goes fascinating places! I’m glad you came back to this issue of the sails–I’d never thought about anything like this before and I’m finding it very intriguing. Do you have a background in academic research or is it something you’ve just picked up as a tool to satisfy your curiosity?
You are not the first person to ask me that question! I blame it all on weaving — as I’m sure you know, when you weave, people think you must know everything about the old days, and ask you very specific questions. I started looking up answers and before I knew it, I was following some weird little pathways into the past! 🙂 When I started this blog, I knew I didn’t want to write about things that were often published and already easy to find on the web, like those lists of common words that came from textiles (like tow-headed, on tenterhooks, etc.), but I have been surprised that there are still so many topics that are not easy to find on the web.
Short growing season?? What do you mean?? Flax was grown and clothings were made of it allredy in those days here in Sweden at least. But as far as I know they only used wool for sails not flax. In both Norway and Denmark there are museums with ships from the viking era – maybe they have something?
I think they do, but they don’t show any close-ups of examples on the internet. They have pictures of their replica boats sailing, and of the wooden parts of the reconstructed boats. But I have not been able to find pictures of the sailcloth.
I don’t know anything about growing seasons, it was another reader who was speculating. I wonder if they wanted to keep the flax for clothing because it would be so much more comfortable next to your skin than most wool! But now I am the one who is speculating. 🙂
Flax has a long time from growing to cloth so maybe thats one reason for using wool – some speculating from my part as well.
Typical that they only show the boats. That’s probably what intrest people the most. Or so they think…
Goodness, I had NO idea it was even possible to make sails from wool!
I found out they have even been made from leather and plant matting. People are so inventive!
Hello and thank you so much for sharing all this information.
You are very welcome! thank you for stopping by and for commenting!
My boyfriend is a sailor and I am a weaver. We are Ulysses and Penelope *;-)
Hopefully you never have to be separated so many years! 🙂
Amazing pics. Thanks for the visit.
Very surprised to see that the newly-made, but historically accurate, Viking DrakenHH uses *silk* sails. Any idea where or how Vikings could get it?
Wow, I did not know about that ship at all! I would love to go see it during one of its stops this summer.
I do know that the Vikings traveled far into Russia and I think, down to Sicily, where the silk industry was established by about 835 AD. I also know that there is a whole book called Silk for the Vikings by Marianne Velderer. The Kindle edition is about $19, but I have not splurged on that one yet.
Here is a quote from Mary Schoeser’s book Silk (Yale University Press): “Viking attacks against Constantinople were rebuffed both by force and by admitting the Swedes to limited trade, one that carried manly silk and silver. These northern silk routes passed over the Black Sea through the Khazarian Empire (c. 583 -965) … eventually turning westward to cross the Baltic Sea to Birka (within today’s Stockholm).” She goes on to say the Vikings sometimes went as far as Baghdad. She has a lot more detail about the overland and maritime trade routes that were established very early on. But she is talking of silk as a luxury fabric, never a utilitarian one. It will be interesting to find out more!
What about the Wool logo on the Prada sail in the America’s Cup race? What does it mean?
Oh my goodness, I am so glad you asked! I hunted through the links for the Prada Cup, and found that Woolmark is a technical partner for the Italian team, and the official sailing jacket is made of 54% Australian merino wool! Here is the link: