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  • James Wheeling

Sails and the miracle they were in 1849

Stephanie Kwolek at a polarizing microscope
Stephanie Kwolek at a polarizing microscope

In my blog about sailing around Cape Horn, I mentioned that sailing ships in the late 20th century and the 21st century are made with Kevlar®. Kevlar® is a synthetic fiber developed in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek while at DuPont. It was the first high-strength material used commercially for a replacement material instead of steel in racing tires. For fabric, including sailcloth, Kevlar® is used as an ingredient in polyester composite fabric that is now used in racing sails due to its high tensile, strength-to-weight ratio.

But, in 1849, that technology was 150 years in the future. So what were sails made of in 1849? I dug into the research and was amazed… another “What the…?” moment.

Way back in time, sails for sailing ships were woven of whatever was handy. Think animal skins, reeds, wool, flax, hemp, cotton, and linen. All of these have poor resistance to rot, UV light, and water absorption. In the United States, linen was the traditional fiber for sailcloth until cotton had to be used due to the interruption of the War of 1812. As sail sizes grew, flax and linen sails became too heavy to be practical and cotton took over in popularity.

Cotton has the advantage for sailcloth as it can be woven more closely and would not, therefore, stretch out of shape easily or lose as much wind through the pores of the material. A major drawback of cotton is that it is very stiff, which makes handling difficult.

The basic steps in manufacturing a sail also boggles my mind. Here goes: first, a sailmaker studies the sail plan or without a plan, measures the vessel’s rig. Following his calculations, the actual plan of the sail is chalked out to full scale on the floor of a sail loft. Then, the cloth is laid down over the plan and the actual length and shape are marked on each cloth. The cloths are then numbered and cut to the dimensions before being sewn together. Special waxed sail twine is used that is right-hand twisted, which helps it to mesh with the fabric. Next, patches are added to the corners for strength, tabling (hems at the edges) are sewn on the luff (forward edge) and the foot, where the greatest strain develop. Details such as a luff rope are sewn inside the leading edge of the sail to prevent the sail from being stretched out of shape. Finally, various other details are added depending on where the sail is located.

Ok, back to 1849 and my story. I found an account of a race between a fleet of British yachts and the U.S. racing yacht, America, in 1851. In the race, the American yacht decisively beat the British yachts due, in part, to the use of cotton sails. So, for my story, I’m going to say that my sailing ship had flax sails.

One can imagine the wear and tear on flax (or linen, for that matter) sails given the strain and their propensity for UV damage and great weight if they became wet. No wonder a captain had to purchase an extra set of sail for the Cape Horn trip and employ a sailmaker to be in charge of sail maintenance!

Just as we have expansive spaces for airplane construction, there had to have been great warehouses for sailmakers where they could lay out the sail plan to the actual dimensions and then fabricate the sails. Given that loom widths measured between four and five feet wide and based on a previous blog’s calculations, a sail could have needed to have been seamed 6-8 times for the proper width. Thank heavens industrial sewing machines were in use in 1849!

How long it took to create a set of sails for a ship, I’m not sure, but given their vital role in a ship’s success, a captain had to be prepared. I can imagine that they weren’t cheap but the expense would be no different than having an extra engine or at least replacement parts in a modern freighter ship.

The question then becomes, what did a captain do with the old, tired, potentially ruined sails when they were replaced? Sailcloth was used for all manner of duties aboard a ship including hammocks, wrapping the deceased before slipping them overboard, etc. I can imagine the sailmaker would salvage every scrap of a sail for any purpose. While too delicate to do their original job of harnessing the wind, worn flax sails would likely have been extremely comfortable in many applications from clothing to bedding, if needed.

So, there you have it. Fascinatingly hard to believe that the entire American sailing world was powered by something a simple as either flax, linen or cotton, but indeed, it was.

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