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Sail Making - Tall Ships

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

Photo: Nautical Terms Under Sail by Country Life

Ashmore - Steerage Shade Sail

The sail which Captain Whitmore rigged up over the main deck to the give the Steerage passenger's shade, would have looked like this one. Shade was a necessity while sailing in the tropics and easy to take down not long after, when they were hit with a snow. Four seasons in 103-days, kept the sailors busy as they had to open the holds to let the passengers open their chests to get out extra blankets, or straw hats for the heat.

Steerage Passengers: ‘Any passenger allotted less than thirty-six feet of space for his or her personal use.’

Captain Whitmore received a write-up in the Auckland newspaper when the Ashmore arrived in New Zealand. It was written by the passengers who praised him highly for all his efforts on the 102-day journey. 

Ashmore's Sailmaker

The Ashmore had a sailmaker named Edmond Butchers who was born in 1842, which made him 40-years-old. That was the average age of most sailors onboard the Ashmore. The Captain liked an experienced crew when hiring for a long journey.

Mr Edmond Butchers received £5 pound per month, which was a really good wage back n 1882. He was given one month's advance when he signed up so he could buy what he needed for the journey. He was then paid twice during the voyage.

Duties of a Sailmaker

he sailmaker assembled and repaired canvas articles such as covers, awnings and sails. Sometimes he was nicknamed ‘Sails’. It wasn't just a skill of threading a needle and creating canvas sails. There were a lot of calculations needed to create the correct belly or draught of the sail. They added narrow strips of canvas in any sails that needed a belly.

Sailmaking was a skill that required training and they needed specific tools.

Equipment Needed

A sailmaker’s bench: Used to sit on to make sewing easier. It contained a palm which was a wooden stock with twine wrapped around one end. And a small hook with a sharp point used for applying tension to the sail as you worked. The bench also had a compartment to store the ball of sail yarn and keep it from becoming knotted or rolling away while you worked

A strong needle: It needed to have a sharp and strong triangular point, strong thread, grommets and leech ropes.

A Sailmaker’s Palm: A strip of leather that was strapped around the palm of the hand with a metal pad in the middle. The indentation on the metal pad was used to force the needle through the sailcloth.

An Awl: was used to create a hole in heavy sailcloth or multiple layers at the same time. In this case, holes were created before they inserted the needle. Pliers: were used in pulling the needle out the other side.

Seam-rubber: a wooden handle made from lignum vitae (tropical wood) with a strong 'scraper'. It was used to crease seams in the edges of the sailcloth.

Fid: Another piece of lignum vitae carved into a cone-shape. It was used to splice rope and open holes in the sailcloth. It was also inserted between the rope strands to create enough space to insert another piece of rope. 

Marlinspike: a wooden handle with a hollow in it which is inserted between strands of rope to create a gap so that another strand can be inserted and passed through easily.

Hollow punches: pins made from metal that have a sharp edge at one end and a flat face at the other. It was hit with a hammer to punch holes of various sizes in the canvas.

Canvas: Canvas was made from hemp, cotton or linen material and covered with tar to make it waterproof.

The ropes on the Ashmore were also covered in tar.

Rope: "It is estimated that including the rope in storage below decks there would have been in excess of 40 miles on board a Man-O-War such as Invincible. Rope on board any sailing ship can be divided into two distinct categories.

  • RUNNING RIGGING - was the term used for all rope which ran through blocks etc and was not fixed. In the main, this would have been untreated, natural hemp, which did not last very long against all the elements.

  • STANDING RIGGING - on the other hand, this was the term used for all static or fixed rope work which never moved or ran through blocks or eyelets etc. For example, the rope used in the shrouds, dead eyes, seizing off blocks etc.. Because of this static fixing, standing rigging was made to last longer by coating/impregnating it with 'Stockholm tar'.

  • THE INGENIOUS BRITISH TAR British sailors generally grew their hair long. One reason for this was to enable them to 'plait' their hair down their backs. Before going into battle, it is said that some would impregnate this 'plait' with STOCKHOLM TAR thus providing considerable protection to the back of their necks. This practice earned them the name 'The British Tar'. (The only efficient way we can cut this tarred hemp rope by hand even now is with an axe).

  • The reason the rope has survived for over 230 years on the seabed is due entirely to the tar impregnation. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the tar for strength and preservation. Rope usage included; - Rigging Gun Blocks Steering linkages Anchor cables Netting Hammocks etc." Rope - H.M.S.Invincible,1758.

To see some of the tools used to create sails for square-rigged ships like the Ashmore, watch this video. 

Video: bosunsmate99

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