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.
here to view the sailmaker's tools.
lick here to view the sailmaker's tools.
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.
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.)
Carved in hardwood or bone, the rubber had a sharpened edge, for rubbing
(pressing) a crease into the canvas, prior to seaming.
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.
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
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.
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
used by sailmakers, with obvious uses, were tape measure, dividers, chalk and
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
Grommeted holes along reefband, for attaching reef points.
lining is the cloth sewn onto the
sail, along the leech (or sides) of a sail. These were added as reinforcements,
along the edges.
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
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
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.
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.
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
or Clues Spliced to both the footrope and leechrope. For bending to the
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.
SEAMAN’S FRIEND, Dana,
Richard Henry Jr., Originally Published Boston 1879, Dover Books reprint 1997.
YOUNG SEA OFFICERS SHEET ANCHOR,
Lever, Darcy, Originally Published London 1819, Dover Books Reprint 1998
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.
WOODEN FIGHTING SHIP IN THE ROYAL NAVY, AD 897-1880, Archibald, E.H.H., Arco Pub Co., New York 1968
SHIPS OF THE WORLD, AN ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPAEDIA, Wilbur,
C. Keith, 1986
BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION’S PRIVATEERS,
Wilbur, C. Keith, Stackpole Books, PA, 1973
SAILMAKER’S APPRENTICE, Mariano,
Emiliano, TAB Books, PA, 1994
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
© 2001, Frank Rodriques. All rights reserved, worldwide. No
permission or license is granted for commercial use of this material.