Even More Sail History

Source: Sailcloth – National Maritime Museum

Ahoy, maties!  After 3 years and 3 months, I have finally found an example of real sail cloth to share with you!  This is from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, and I have added that place to my Dream Itinerary For The Ultimate Textile Tour, because they have all kinds of uncatalogued papers on sailmakers and their sailmaking lofts, so they obviously need my help.

I have hunted for sail information in thrift shops, used book stores, and maritime museums over these last few years, and this is the stack of books I have purchased.  (Plus one more that the puppy got a hold of and chewed the spine off.)

Stack of ship books.

Stack of ship books.

From the entire 1400 pages worth of information in those books, everything I have found on the actual sails themselves, the very important textiles without which there would be no sailing ships, is found in the two excerpts below.  Thank goodness for Patrick O’Brian and his fictional sailor Jack Aubrey, because that series has sparked some great companion books to explain the novels’ historical and geographic settings.

The whole beautiful and magnificently complex arrangement of masts and rigging was provided for the purpose of carrying the sails, which gave the ship its motive power.  The sails themselves were made of canvas, a material properly made from hemp.  Supplied in bolts that were then cut and sewn by the sailmaker, either at a shore establishment or on board a ship, the nature of the canvas’s thickness and weave was denoted by a number, the lowest number denoting the coarsest and strongest canvas, and the highest number indicating the finest and lightest canvas.  The canvas was cut to the desired length and shaped in the fashion needed to catch the wind and so impart movement to the ship on which the sail was set.  The various cloths that were necessary to create any particular sail were seamed together with a double seam, and the sail’s leech [outer edge] was shaped with gores to give it the required belly.  (p. 62)

Square sails were always cut from canvas delivered to the ship in bolts.  The bolt was a roll of canvas 39 yards long.  There was no standard width, the canvas normally coming in widths between 22 and 30 inches.  The standard “working” sails were sewn of heavier canvas, while the lighter canvas was reserved for the kites [special sails that could be set to take advantage of a favorable wind].  Every ship of the Royal Navy included among its complement a sailmaker as one of the essential members of the crew along with men such as the boatswain, carpenter, and gunner.  Such men and their mates and assistants were vital to the success of any long-lasting passage or mission, when the ship might be out of touch with shore facilities for months on end and therefore had to be as self-reliant as possible.  (p. 64)

(Okay, we’ll go return for more of that quote after this image — I know it is gigantic but I have embedded it 3 times with supposedly different size files and it always shows up this big.)

Source: Mug – National Maritime Museum

There were many terms associated with sails, which were of course wholly vital to the operation of any ship before the introduction of powered propulsion.  Setting sail, was in purist sense, the hoisting or loosing of the sails to start the ship moving, but the phrase was frequently used figuratively for the departure of a ship at the beginning of a voyage.  Making sail was the spreading of additional canvas to increase the ship’s speed.  Shortening sail was the taking in or reefing of sails to reduce the speed of the ship.  Striking sails was a sudden lowering of sails.  (p. 65)

Richard O’Neill, consulting editor,Patrick O’Brien’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World,  Salamander Books Ltd., 2003

Sailing ship on a Greek stamp.

Sailing ship on a Greek stamp. Those look like hemp sails to me.

And now to an older book, very helpful except for one glaring textile mistake, which I have italicized within the quote:

Sail-cloth had become a crucial element in world power, and the sources and quality of the pliable flax a constant preoccupation among maritime peoples.  Of all the materials from which sails had been made, flax had proved itself the most suitable, woven on foot-operated spinning wheels in a widespread home industry scattered between countless isolated cottages, around which the sound of the looms continued all day.  The character and treatment of the yarn was a matter of detailed specification when the best sails were involved, as too was the sailmakers’ manner of making up the canvas produced by the weavers.  Not surprisingly we find Samuel Pepys* involving himself in the matter and writing of ‘a high dispute’ he had with Sir William Penn and Sir William Batten on the subject of how broad the canvas should be, how close together the seams in the sewn sail.  The latter gentlemen insisted that the individual cloths should be narrow, this giving the sail many seams and making it less liable to stretch.  Pepys opposed the view; and here he was wrong.  The two Sir Williams were trying to minimize the fault in flax sails that to the end of their days was to detract from the performance of working craft.

Flax had strength and the great virtue of remaining soft and pliable when wet, the latter of great importance to the handling of sails under bad conditions.  But as a corollary of this quality flax canvas stretched, sagged, and with use lost weight and became porous.  The ability of the square-rigged ship to claw to windward was weakened by the character of her canvas; those ‘white wings’ beloved by generations of marine artists were wings that faltered.  In this, as in so many respects, the limitations of seamanship were set by the materials available.  It was the practice to wet down flax sails – sometimes known as ‘skeating’ – in order to shrink them and harden up the loose weave.

And again, we will take a short break from the quote, in order for me to bring you another of the stamps I got in that Greek flea market collection.

A "white-winged" ship on Greek stamp.

A “white-winged” ship on Greek stamp.


An American yachtsman of the present day has said that the British have traditionally misunderstood sails.  It is undoubted that the American people in the last days of commercial and naval sail appreciated the subtleties of sail texture and cut better than those of Europe, and in the yacht-racing era that was to come it was to be one of their greatest assets.  In the first decades of the nineteenth century they began to mix cotton with flax, and then to use all cotton.  With the development of power looms, an altogether harder and more closely woven cloth was made, which was able to bring more power to sails.  In the War of 1812, it was found that privateers and blockade runners using the new cotton duck were definitely closer winded than those with flax.  A century and a half later the creamy cotton duck which had become the admired sail-cloth for yachts proved itself no less clearly inferior in weatherliness to cloth of the man-made fibres, particularly the one now known as terylene**, which was yet firmer and less porous than cotton.

Sails of terylene could have transformed the behaviour of square-rigged ships, but it came on the scene too late.  Cotton duck, despite its merits in providing close-windedness lacked the strength of good flax; furthermore, when wet it became hard and intractable as a board; and the greater sailing ships ended their days handicapped by their flax sails.

Douglas Hextall Chedzey Phillips-Birt, A History of Seamanship, pp. 266-269, Doubleday, 1971

Okay, I am very grateful for this information, but you textile people know I am going to have to comment on Mr. Phillips-Birt’s horrendous mistake in the first paragraph I quoted.  How is it that a person who can describe every detail of how a ship is planned, put together, and navigated, cannot figure out that you spin thread on a spinning wheel and then weave those threads into cloth on a loom!  I don’t know.  If I said, “They nailed together the beams and planks with axes,” or, “They chopped the ships from the forest with hammers,” every single person who read it would know I was mashing two steps together and confusing the proper tools.


I am going to finish up with a ship that doesn’t have a sail at all, but it has a very cute fish that looks like it was either drawn by or inspired Dr. Seuss.

No sails on this ship, but I love the "Dr. Seuss" fish on the bottom left.

No sails on this ship, but I love the “Dr. Seuss” fish on the bottom left.

Close-up of the fish.

Close-up of the fish.

Since there is such a dearth of sail information in these books, I have learned to check the index for references to sails before I actually buy the book.  About six weeks ago, I was looking at one used book and the only information on sails was something about “Locronan.”  So I didn’t buy that book, and when I got home I searched for Locronan, and found out that it is a gorgeous town in France, that had a monopoly on weaving sails for years!  Even English and Spanish people would get their sails from Locronan. Then the king took away their monopoly, and they became too poor to update their houses and so on, so not much got built after the 18th century.  So now the village is a prime tourist attraction, and they have a weaving museum!  So obviously I need to go.  I bet I can work it into the same trip as when I go to the National Maritime Museum.

*Samuel Pepys was a seventeenth century Secretary of the Admiralty who put many reforms into place, including competency examinations for lieutenants, and requirements for surgeons, chaplains, and schoolmasters to be placed on all large ships.  He also was instrumental in founding the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, invented bookshelves with glass fronts, and left a sizeable collection of ships’ pictures and models for posterity.

** We know this better by its commercial name of Dacron.