The seagoing sailmaker and his mates were responsible for maintaining the ships’ sails and all canvas work. From mending/repairing sails to manufacture and repair of pennants and jacks, deck buckets, &c. Sailmaker’s Mates were also known as idlers, as they didn’t stand watch.

     Sails were made ashore in a sail loft. The sail loft had a large enough deck area to spread out a complete sail. Lofting is the term used for establishing the pattern. (Somewhat the same way a boat is lofted). Once the size and shape of the sail is determined, the sailmaker would draw the outline on the deck with small stuff (marline or twine), held in place and off the deck with awls. Now that the perimeter is established, sail cloth (24” wide), was laid out under the pattern, and overlapped to account for the seams. The sailmaker then cuts the cloth a few inches outside the lofted lines to account for tabling (hemming). A wooden batten would be used to determine the roach or the curve along the foot. The cloths are then joined by a flat seam, approx. 1 1/4’ for topgallants- 1 1/2” for main courses and topsails. (The shape of the sail is determined also by varying the width of the seam).


     Although capable, the seagoing sailmaker did not manufacture sails aboard ship. Instead, the ship would have a spare suit of sails aboard and the sailmaker and mates would mend and repair as needed. The best suit would be bent to the yards in anticipation of heavy weather, i.e.. prior to entering the Roaring Forties or the Horn, &c.

     The Royal Navy did not establish manufacturing specs for their sails, since each sailmaker had his own preferred methods. This was due to the apprenticing practices as each sailmaker learned the trade from another sailmaker and little, if anything, was written down. This would include the actual sail plans of the H.M.S. Richmond. Due to refits, battle damage, &c., these would be constantly changing.

    Once the sail is assembled, accommodations such as reef- bands, buntlines, clews, &c. were added on.


Click here to view the sailmaker's tools.

·         Benchhook Also called Sailhook, Stretching Hook or Third hand. Used to hold canvas, while pulling tight with the left hand. This ensures the canvas is tight while stitching, keeping the seam straight.

·         Stitching Palm Used for the same purpose a tailor uses a thimble, for pushing needles through the canvas. Placed on the right hand, the needle could be pushed though with the force of the palm of the hand. (In the 18th Century, there were no left handed people. People suffering this affliction, usually were taught to conform.)

·         Seam Rubber Carved in hardwood or bone, the rubber had a sharpened edge, for rubbing (pressing) a crease into the canvas, prior to seaming.

·         Knives Canvas was cut with a sharp sheepsfoot blade knife. A narrow cordwainer’s knife was used for cutting grommet holes. A dulled knife was also used to score canvas prior to rubbing.

·         Fids are used for shaping grommets and sometimes in splicing. Made of hardwood, bone and sometimes iron.

·         Awls Primarily for holding small stuff during lofting, pricking holes and &c.

·         Needles Sailmaker’s needles are triangular, with dulled corners and point. The shape allows for penetration through canvas by spreading the weave, without cutting the fibers. (A triangular needle with sharp corners and point are called glover’s needles and are used in leatherwork).

·         Thread 3 to 8 ply linen.

·         Handybilly This was a luff purchase tackle, with a 3:1 advantage. It would be used in inspecting sails by stretching the sheet, thereby simulating the stress normally upon it.

·         Bench The sailmaker worked seated on a bench. Not just a seat, this was to the sailmaker what a workbench is to the carpenter. There would be a place for the tools as well as a point to secure the benchhook.

·         Also used by sailmakers, with obvious uses, were tape measure, dividers, chalk and wooden battens.   


Sailmaker's Bench

·            Reefbands are the cloth reinforcements onto which the reef points are added. On a main course, one or two reef bands could be found. On topsails, one could find up to four reef bands. On a spritsail, they would have been placed diagonally across the sheet.

·            Robands Grommeted holes along reefband, for attaching reef points.

·            Leech lining is the cloth sewn onto the sail, along the leech (or sides) of a sail. These were added as reinforcements, along the edges.

·            Boltropes are the ropes sewn along the edge of the sail. The headrope across the top, footrope-bottom and leech rope-sides. Collectively they’re called the boltrope.

·            Middlebands are the cloth sewn half way between the lowest reefband and the foot. It would not be found on a sail without a reefband. It’s purpose was to reinforce the sheet and protect it from chaffing

·            Buntline cloth are the vertical cloths sewn from the foot to the middleband. The main courses would carry four equally spaced buntline cloths, while the topsails two. None would be found on topgallants or on sails without reef points. Again for protection from chaffing.

·            Top linings were sewn to the after side center of the topsails, from the foot to the center of the middleband. This protected the sheet from chaffing against the tops or crosstrees.

·            Earrings Located where the headrope meets the leach rope. Actually an extension of the leechrope, bent and spliced into itself. Used in bending the sail to the yard.

·            Clews or Clues Spliced to both the footrope and leechrope. For bending to the lower yard.

·            Cringle Spliced loops along the leechrope. Used for attaching bowlines &c.

   Note, Reef tackle pieces and foot linings were not in use prior to 1811. The mastcloth was introduced in 1788.


THE SEAMAN’S FRIEND, Dana, Richard Henry Jr., Originally Published Boston 1879, Dover Books reprint 1997.

THE YOUNG SEA OFFICERS SHEET ANCHOR, Lever, Darcy, Originally Published London 1819, Dover Books Reprint 1998

THE MASTING AND RIGGING OF ENGLISH SHIPS OF WAR 1625-1860, Lees, James, Conway Maritime Press Ltd., London 1975, Reprinted 1995, Published and Distributed in U.S. by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD.

THE WOODEN FIGHTING SHIP IN THE ROYAL NAVY, AD 897-1880, Archibald, E.H.H., Arco Pub Co., New York 1968


PICTURE BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION’S PRIVATEERS, Wilbur, C. Keith, Stackpole Books, PA, 1973

THE SAILMAKER’S APPRENTICE, Mariano, Emiliano, TAB Books, PA, 1994

BY-LINE: Frank Rodriques, International Guild of Knot Tyers member, Nautical Artificer, of New Bedford Mass., and has taken on the persona of Sailmaker as part of the Richmond's Ship’s Company. He is an experienced living history reenactor of more than 10 years, much of which is F & I British. Frank has extensive experience in working with canvas, leather, wood, and making period accoutrements.

Copyright © 2001, Frank Rodriques. All rights reserved, worldwide. No permission or license is granted for commercial use of this material.

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