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Traditional Maritime Skills :: Sail Making

Sail Making


A large number of sails is required for the reconstructed ship of the line 'De Delft'. One of the rooms at the shipyard is set up as a sail loft: there is a large level wooden floor and a large flat wooden table.

The sails on 'De Delft' are made, cut and sewn in the traditional way by hand but the design of the sails is undertaken using a computer program. The sailmaker (or the computer program) also calculates the correct draft (or draught / belly) of the sail. A draft is created in the sail by using narrower strips in places. It takes experience and skill to create the correct draft; see the bibliography for further information.

It was decided not to opt for traditional materials for the rigging plan of 'De Delft', such as flax, linen, cotton, manila and hemp, but for synthetic. The material used for the sails is Dacron. The twine and the yarn are also synthetic. The reason for this is that synthetic sails, twine and yarn will last longer and require less maintenance than natural materials.

Materials and tools

A room with a level floor and a large flat table is required for sailmaking. The sailcloth from which the sails are made is supplied on a roll or in strips of approximately 60 cm wide. These strips are laid out on the floor or table, marked off and cut to size. For marking off the sailmaker uses a tape measure, T-square and pencil. The sailcloth is cut using a sharp knife.

A handy tool for the sailmaker is a sailmaker’s bench. The bench is of course intended for sitting on when working but it also serves for storing tools in a handy manner so that everything is to hand. A sailmaker’s bench contains a sailmaker’s palm, a wooden stock with a warp of twine around it and a small hook with a sharp point; this hook is intended for applying tension to the work piece during sewing, which makes the sewing easier. The sailmaker’s bench has a small compartment into which the ball of sail yarn is placed to stop it from rolling away and becoming knotted.

The additional hand tools used by a sailmaker are:

  • Sail needle: a strong needle with a sharp triangular point.
  • Sailmaker’s thread: strong thread for sewing up the sails, leech ropes and grommets.
  • Sailmaker’s palm: a strip of leather with a metal pad with an indentation that is used to force the needle through the sailcloth. The strip is strapped around the palm of the hand.
  • Awl, to create a hole in heavy sailcloth or multiple layers of sailcloth before inserting the needle.
  • Pliers, for pulling through a needle inserted into heavy sailcloth or multiple layers of sailcloth.
  • Seam-rubber: a wooden handle with a strong 'scraper', made from strong lignum vitae (tropical type of wood) for creasing down seams in the edges of the sailcloth.
  • Fid: a cone-shaped piece of lignum vitae for splicing rope or opening up holes in the sailcloth. The fid is inserted between the strands of a rope in order to create space through which another piece of rope can be inserted. The fid can also be inserted into a hole in the sailcloth and will open it up wider, so that the hole becomes larger.
  • Marlinspike (also known as a marlingspike): a wooden handle with a piece of metal that tapers to a point in the form of an awl and which has a hollow in it and which is intended for splicing stranded rope. The marlinspike is inserted between the strands of rope, a strand is inserted through the hollow section of the marlinspike and is thus fed through the gap in the rope.
  • Hollow punch: a metal pin with a round hole at one end with a sharp edge and a flat face on the opposite end so that it can be hit with a hammer. Hollow punches are available in various sizes and diameters to make small and larger holes.


The sailcloth is supplied in long strips or on a roll. The strips are cut to the correct length with the help of a drawing of the sail and the required draft is applied. The best way is to draw the outside of the sail on the floor or on the table and then place the roll or strips on top in order to mark them off. The strips are then sewn together until a rough sail shape is obtained. This is then followed by a series of finishing that depend on the shape, the location and the function of the sail. The outside edge of the sail is folded into a hem that is reinforced by sewing rope upon it. This edge is known as the 'leech'. Loops are added to this using rope and these are used for handling the sail. Reinforced holes (cringles) are made in the sail for securing it to the yard and for reefing the sail (tying down the sail at a higher point in order to reduce the sail area when the wind is blowing hard).

Step-by-step guide to sewing a sail:

  • Once the strips of the sail have been measured out, marked up and cut out they are sewn together using a flat needle. To do this, lay two strips slightly overlapping by 3 cm for example. Before sewing up the complete seam you tack the seam first every 50 cm. These days double-sided tape is also used.

  • You use a straight stitch to sew the seams: you stitch from A to B and constantly repeat this. If you are right-handed then you work from right to left; if you are left-handed then you go from left to right. Sit on the sailmaker’s bench with the strips on the table. Take a large quantity of thread, tie a knot in the end of the thread and insert the other end through the needle. Keep the seam flat in front of you. Work from thin to thick, in other words: push the needle down into the single layer of sailcloth and push it towards the double part of the seam. Push it up again diagonally on the seam approximately 5 mm further along the seam, through two layers of sailcloth. The second stitch is made about 1 cm further along (rule of thumb: 7 stitches along the length of the sail needle). Make sure that the next stitches are always just as long and evenly spaced so that you create a regular pattern.

  • Once you have sewn up the seam on one side using a flat stitch then turn over the sail and sew up the same seam on the other side, also using a flat stitch.

  • In this way sew up all strips together on both sides of the seam with a flat seam and straight stitch in order to create the basic shape of the sail.

  • The four corners of the sails are reinforced by sewing on extra sailcloth to create more layers; up to as many as 5 or 6 layer thickness of sailcloth. These layers are again sewn onto the sail using sailmaker’s thread.

  • Create a hem of a few centimetres all the way around once the basic shape of the sail is ready and the corners have been reinforced. Do this by laying the sail flat on the table or on the floor. Now fold the edge of the sail by about 4 centimetres and make a crease. Force down this crease using the wooden seam-rubber. This is done by rubbing the seam-rubber over the crease a number of times while applying force, in the same way as a paint scraper, so that the crease remains flat on the sailcloth.

  • Once the hem has been creased and rubbed all the way around you sew up the entire hem using a flat stitch. To do this, sit on the sailmaker’s bench and use the sailmaker’s palm to tension the work piece when sewing the hem using the sharp hook and the end of the twine on the stock.

  • For sewing, use the sail needle and the sailmaker’s palm to push the needle through the sailcloth. Use the pliers to pull the needle through the cloth. At places where the sail is more than two layers thick use the awl to pre-punch the holes through which you can push the needle. Multiple layers of sailcloth on top of each other are so strong that you will not be able to push through the sail needle by hand.

  • All edges of the sail are now reinforced by sewing up with strong rope; these are called the 'leech ropes'. For large sails you use thicker rope and thinner rope for small sails. The rope is sewn onto one side of the sail, onto the hem of the sail, approximately one centimetre from the edge. This is done by sewing loops onto one strand of the rope. The thread runs in the same direction as the strand. The next strand is then sewn up further along, and so on.

  • Before sewing up the leech ropes you first make the cringles. These are rope loops and grips for the sheets, through which ropes are fed that allow you to handle the sail. Knot techniques are used to make cringles, which are described in a separate skill. The cringles are tied to the leech ropes in the correct positions, before they are sewn onto the sails. NB: each sail has a different size and function, as a result of which the cringles are also located at different positions. This depends on the function and the design of the sail.

  • In the top hem of the sail you make a series of small holes, which are called eyelets, through which ropes are passed for fastening the sail to the yard. These eyelets are made as follows. Round holes of the required size are punched through the sailcloth at the required positions using a hole punch and hammer. You can use scissors or a small knife to further snip the holes crossways.

  • Now you make the grommets using rope. This is done by unwinding the three strands of a piece of rope of three strands of approximately a half a metre long. Make sure that the ends do not unravel. For synthetic rope you do this using an electric rope cutter, which melts the ends of the strands and bonds them together. The ends can also be bonded together using a smaller burner or a lighter. If using a different type of rope that does not melt you bind each end of the stranding using a piece of masking tape. Now take one strand and make a loop of approximately 5 cm cross-section in the centre of this. Make sure that both ends are the same length. Now take one of the ends, which you start to twist around the loop in the direction of the end. Insert the end through the loop and make sure that the strand sits neatly in the recesses in the loop. Continue until you have made a complete circle. Now take the other end and twist this around the loop also in the direction of that end. Insert the end through the loop and make sure that the strand sits neatly in the recesses in the loop. Continue until you have made a complete circle. The loop now looks like a circle that has been made from the same thickness of rope from which you have used the three strands. The ends of the two strands can be melted using an electric rope cutter if you are using synthetic rope. For a different type of rope half the thickness of the rope by cutting through half of the strand. Insert the remaining piece into the loop, as a result of which this will become slightly thicker.

  • Each eyelet is fitted with a grommet. This is tacked in place using four tack stitches in such a way that the eyelet hole is precisely in the centre of the grommet. The grommet is then sewn up around the eyelet using sail thread. This is done by repeatedly sewing loops over the grommet and through the sailcloth until you have completed an entire circle.

  • Depending on the type of sail further strips of sailcloth are sewn across the width of the sail in order to secure the reefing lines. Eyelets of the required size are punched into these strips at the required positions using a hole punch and hammer. Grommets are also sewn onto the eyelets, which you have made from rope. Short lengths of rope are inserted through these eyelets so that the sail can be reefed (made smaller when the wind is blowing hard). A knot is tied in the end of the rope on each side of the eyelet in order to make sure that the rope remains in place.
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Tools Required

See 'Materials and Tools' in main text

Materials Required

See 'Materials and Tools' in main text

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