A Brief History of Sailcloth During the Age of Sail

If one were to wonder what the Age of Sail was really all about, the clue is in the title. Without “Sail”, all you have is “Age of”, and that’s no fun for anyone. The fact is that at the height of the Age of Sail, the cut and fabric composition of sails was of primary importance, and entire local economies were built upon the demand for sailcloth. Mundane as it may seem, without a staggering amount of canvas, Collingwood, Nelson, Hornblower and Aubrey weren’t going anywhere.

The word duck has been associated with ships for centuries, and it seems that, as in the case of duck (duct)-tape, it has to do with the way words sound rather than the actual intended meaning. The Dutch word for sailcloth is “zeildoek.” Doek is Dutch for cloth (generically) and zeil becomes sail in English. It does not overly strain the imagination to see a correlation; particularly when Holland was a major supplier of sailcloth and raw materials, trading in flax and hemp for hundreds of years. Eventually, the word “duck” became associated with a heavy fabric and was applied to cotton canvas when it was first manufactured in the United States.1″

Linen Sails

The most popular fabric for sails from the earliest times through the mid-nineteenth century was finely woven linen made from flax, but a more coarsely woven fabric made from hemp was also widely used. Examples of sails survived aboard the wreck of the newly-launched Swedish man-of-war Vasa that sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628. Archeological analysis of two sails indicated a closely textured fabric in a smaller sail, and a coarser weave in a larger sail, but “the condition of fibers was so poor that it was not possible to determine if they were of flax or hemp. It seemed likely that the coarser cloth at least was hemp cloth and the finer one linen.”2

Duck Standards

The widths of the cloth varied over time, and presumably the capacity of available looms often determined the dimensions of the finished goods. The width of the cloth itself combined with the number of seams, determines the strength and deformation resistance of a sail. Wolfram zu Mondfeld addresses the widths of sailcloth in his compendium of obscure information for model shipbuilders. “The cloths themselves were up to 4 ft. wide in the early middle ages, 32 to 36 inches wide in the late Middle Ages, around 28 inches wide from the middle of the 16th century to the beginning of the 18th century, and from then 24 or 18 inches; the width of the seams fell over the same period from 1 ½ to 1 inch.”3

According to Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, when sailcloth was imported it would be trademarked for positive identification. “The light flax sail fabrics imported mostly from England and Scotland bore the trademark stencil of a raven [commonly referred to as ravens duck at the time] while the heavier weights bore the trademark picturing a duck.”4

Standards for British manufactured sailcloth were enacted in 1746. In addition to requiring British sail makers to mark each new sail with his name and address, the size of a bolt of sailcloth was standardized at twenty-four inches wide by thirty-eight yards long.5 Sails were stitched up from multiple strips of sailcloth, and edged with hemp bolt-ropes to keep their shape and distribute stress along the extremities of the sail, and provide anchor-points for rigging components.

A Strategic War Materiel

During the Age of Sail, duck was the equivalent of today’s gasoline and diesel fuel as a strategic war materiel. Without it, ships did not move. This was of crucial importance to nations at war, and control of its availability could influence the outcome of naval engagements. The British Navigation Acts required that duck originating in Holland and the other major source of production, Russia, be assessed for duties by being imported by way of England into the American colonies. The opening of the American Revolution put an end to the plentiful importation of duck through the usual British sources, however Holland and Russia duck was aggressively smuggled into the colonies through clandestine channels along with other desperately needed supplies such as muskets and gunpowder. The inflated cost and risk entailed in securing sailcloth in 1775 caused Congress to encourage its domestic manufacture, but shortages persisted.

Linen vs. Cotton

While imported flax sailcloth remained popular and trusted through the midyears of the nineteenth century, cotton sail duck production in the United States began prior to the War of 1812. The first production of American manufactured cotton sail duck is attributed to Seth Bemis’s mill at Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1812 the supply of imported duck was cut off (just as it had been during the Revolution), but domestically grown sea island (off the Georgia coast) cotton now enabled a supply of sailcloth to be maintained. Selling for about one dollar per yard, scarcity and high demand brought Bemis a profit approaching sixty cents per yard on his investment, over one hundred percent return.

The price of duck went down with the introduction of the power loom during the 1820s and by 1831 it was selling at thirty-five cents per yard.9 By midcentury, millions of yards of duck were being produced, largely in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Baltimore, Maryland.

The change-over from flax to cotton sail duck in the navy proceeded slowly, as more conservative elements did not trust the newer fabric to perform as well as the traditional flax canvas with its centuries of proven dependability and predictable characteristics. The U. S. Navy conducted tests and the results were inconclusive as to which material was better. Both materials had qualities better suited to specific purposes, and were frequently used in conjunction with one another, both in the navy and commercially.

As sailing ships grew ever larger, the demand for sail duck increased accordingly. There were still occasional shortages, but by 1858 the production capacity finally exceeded the demand. Reaching a saturation point, the mills suffered economic recession.10 At the same time, the construction of large ocean-going freighters declined following the depression of 1857.

The Decline of Duck

A respite in the decline of the American merchant marine under sail followed the end of the Civil War, particularly in New England, when large vessels that came to be known as down-Easters carried on overseas trade. However, by the early years of the twentieth century these ships found themselves more and more relegated to the coasting trade and inland waterways. The higher cost of operating vessels under the United States flag made it harder to compete with foreign shipping. Sailing vessels, both American and foreign, with their huge expanses of canvas quickly lost their place to steamships, and many were the helpless victims of submarine warfare during World War I. The cause of the United States merchant marine was advanced by the war effort, but the vessels required were steam freighters.

With the advance of technology the need for sailcloth to power commercial shipping ended. Although duck is still manufactured for many purposes under many different names, including Oceanus TM, a synthetic substitute used aboard the National Park Service’s own tall ship Friendship of Salem, the Great Age of Duck ended with the Great Age of Sail.

Notes

1 Dr. Isabel B. Wingate, ed., Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles (New York, 1967), p.199

2 Sven Bengtsson, “The Sails of the Vasa,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and

Underwater Exploration (1975), Vol. 4. No. 1, p.33

3 Wolfram zu Mondfeld, Historic Ship Models (New York, 1989), p.256

4 Wingate, p.99

5 J.W. Norie, The Elements and Practice of Rigging, Seamanship, and Naval Tactics, Including Sail

Making ,Mast Making, and Gunnery (London, 1821), Vol. II, p. 149

6 Elton W. Hall, “Sailcloth for American Vessels,” The American Neptune (Salem, 1971), Vol. XXXI,

No. 2, p. 135

7 The frigate Essex (built at Salem, Massachusetts) was one of eight warships built with funds

subscribed by private citizens to augment a nearly non-existent United States Navy during the

Quasi-War with France (1798-1801). The other vessels were Merrimack (Newburyport), Maryland

(Baltimore), Patapsco and Philadelphia (Philadelphia), Boston (Boston), New York (New York), Richmond

(Richmond), and John Adams (Charleston).

8 Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, The Frigate Essex Papers: Building the Salem Frigate 1798-1799

(Salem, 1974), p. 89, 90, 297

9 Hall, pp. 135, 136

10 Ibid, p.142

Written by John Frayler, Park Historian, Salem Maritime NHS, with minor condensing and editing by your captain. From Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions: Historical Musings from Salem Maritime NHS. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Image: Photograph of the fore topsail of the HMS Victory, a.k.a. the Trafalgar Sail, the single largest artifact and only surviving sail from the Battle of Trafalgar. Complete with shot holes! Courtesy of Cindy.

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6 Comments on A Brief History of Sailcloth During the Age of Sail

  1. I can imagine that cotton/flax sailcloth manufacturing now is probably something of a cottage industry along the lines of wooden boats. So? What else did they use sailcloth for?

  2. The Dear Knows // September 23, 2010 at 9:26 pm //

    LOL You noticed the article didn’t really answer your question, huh? Bummer. I’m still in the process of doing more research, but thus far it seems that there’s definite archeological evidence of sailcloth being used to make trousers (there are recovered examples from the 1758 HMS Invincible shipwreck but I haven’t been able to find any pictures). When used for clothing the heavier weights were preferred as they were more weather resistant and sturdier in general. I also found this exhibit of sailors’ needlework done with wool or silk thread on sailcloth as a form of folk art. This dates from a little later than our period (1830ish) but I imagine similar art was being made during the Napoleonic Era. Additionally I discovered a thriving modern day fashion industry based on recycled sailcloth, mainly totebags and umbrellas. It seems to me that anything we might make in the modern day for fun, sailors in the past probably did out of necessity, so I would imagine sailcloth bags at least were very common.

    Anyway, not giving up on this, still searching!

  3. It was a tough assignment. The only reference I could find to use other than sailing was from this site:
    http://www.hmsrichmond.org/sailordress.htm

    I didn’t pick the music so don’t shoot the messenger. Basically, the site mentions that pants were commonly made from sailcloth. Some other interesting notes on dress as well.

  4. Janice M. Bonser // June 8, 2014 at 6:36 pm //

    A short film called, “Hemp for Victory”, by the United States Department of Agriculture said, “All the ships that sailed the Western seas were rigged with hemp rope and sails.

  5. Models by ME // December 23, 2016 at 10:49 pm //

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article, i have used this information in my model ship making and believe it has added considerably to the finished models.

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