Home Up Pre-History The District The Streets City Industry The Tenement Family Names North East Art

The Doric Columns


Richards & Co, were listed as Sailmakers, of Aberdeen which was part owned by Henry Holland, the son of Sir Henry Holland the Architect, from about 1800.  Apparently, for the next 100 years or so it was common for Aberdonians to speak of 'working at Hollands'.  The name 'Richards', in association with textiles, suggests the company  company which formerly owned and ran both the Broadford Works in Hutcheon Street, and the Rubislaw Works (approximately on the site of Aberdeen Grammar School's Rubislaw Playing fields).  Whether they actually manufactured sails is not apparent but they certainly produced heavy canvas (apparently fire-hoses were a speciality). If it was the same company, then I have never heard the name 'Holland' used in connection with it, but the street which runs off Hutcheon Street northwards, opposite Broadford, is called Holland Street, which is suggestive of their presence.  The volume 'Mechanical Aberdeen' by John S Reid (ISBN 1 870978 31 5) refers to and illustrates some of Richards works, with acknowledgments 
to 'Richards plc',.

Champion of the Seas Her working suit of sails required 12,500 yards of cotton, 18 inches wide. Upon completion

William Cumming Sail-maker Albion Street
Alexander Brown Sail-maker 7 Trinity Corner worked in the Weigh House Loft
Alexander McDonald Sail-maker 53 York Street
William Ross Sail-maker 13 Lodge Walk
Alexander Wales Sail-maker 12, St Clements Street
Robert Gibbon and Sons,  Rope and Sailmakers, Links, Footdee
James Moir Sail-maker, 17 York Street
Catto, Thompson & Co., Rope and Sail Makers York Street
John Collie Ropemaker Wales Street
Cummings and Ross Sail-makers Weigh-house square
Goldie & Hay, Sail-Makers 21 St Clements Street, Footdee - James Goldie shipowner Prospect Cottage

Aberdeen Rope and Sail Co., Links, Footdee.
In July 1836, on a return journey to Aberdeen, the Albion carried timber from Miramichi which was due to be sold by public auction "on the links adjoining the works of the Aberdeen Rope and Sail Company"

The workmanship and design of sails was of the greatest importance and if badly done could largely nullify the performance of an otherwise well designed ship. Wrinkles around the boltropes, seams or linings were usually a sign of poor workmanship with uneven tensions between the cloth of the sail and its various stitchings and ropings.

The British used flax canvas sometimes with a hemp mixture, which appeared as a greyish or pale fawn colour, which although likely to become bleached in time, never had the same snowy whiteness as cotton.  Centuries before, the lowest sails of the old galleon types were made of a coarse heavy material known as kersey, and some contemporary references name these sails as kerses, which may possibly be the origin of the word course or coarse, although the word course in other contexts also means a layer or row, such as in bricks or slates. Ships usually carried a spare suit of sails, and the oldest worn canvas, well patched, would be used in fair weather regions, changing to the best canvas for heavy weather.  The sail cloths were assembled by sewing overlapping seams, the best method known as double round seam. The perimeter of the sail was folded over (tabled) about 4 to 6 in. for the lower courses, 3 to 5 in. for topsails, and 3 in. for smaller sails, and to this hem was stitched a stout boltrope always on the after side of square sails and not the extreme edge.

Additional strength was given by sewing an extra cloth of canvas (lining) over the side edges (leeches) ; a folded cloth horizontally at the reef points; a narrower 1 at the foot (roach) and a short distance up; and 1 at the head, with vertical cloths part way up the sail in line with each buntline, all of these except at the head being on the fore side of the sail.  The seams were an average of 1.5 in. wide, but on fore and aft sails varied somewhat. The spanker seams were wider at the foot, say 3 to 3.5 in. occasionally 5 in., and about 2.75 in. at the head, in the main body being 1.5 in. Each seam tapered gradually to these widths, which helped to make up the shape of the non-parallel sides and gave a slight convex curve (roach) at the foot and slight bag in the middle.   Large jibs had seams about 3 in. at the foot and 2.5 in. along the stay. Some sailmakers, carrying on with an old tradition, gave belly to the square sails also, but the most efficient sails were made as flat as possible,

The illustrations show the method of working in the attachments of rigging etc. to the boltropes. Early in the century the cringles were formed of rope only, but later they had metal cringles inserted. With rope cringles for the buntlines along the foot, the sail had a tabling only, but when the buntlines were fastened in holes in the edge of the sail itself, a lining was added to the tabling.  The position of the reef points is of interest. From the previous century the holes through which the reef points were threaded were pierced in the cloth between the seams, sometimes in pairs and sometimes alternating 2 and 1 per cloth, as also were the holes for lacing to the jackstay. Often a middle line of stitches was sewn down a seam, especially on naval craft, and the reef band cloth being doubled over was probably considered strong enough to take the reef points clear of the seams. Contemporary paintings and some photographs over the latter half of the century show the reef points as being on the line of the seam more often than not, and some windjammer photographs late in the century plainly show reef points spaced seam and cloth alternately.

Spankers seem to be consistent throughout the century in having their reef points on the seam lines, possibly because these seams were wider and the stitched holes helped to keep them tighter. It was a complaint that wide seams held water and caused rot. 

The spacing of the holes for the hanks in staysails was 36 in. for the lighter ones such as flying jibs, the larger ones being 27 in., which may or may not have coincided with the seams, depending on the angle of the seams relative to the luff.  The curved roach on a square sail was dependent on the angle or height of the stay immediately below it, which it had to clear. Braces from the yards on a mast in front sometimes led downward under the sail, attaching either to the mast or the head of the stay, and these also had to be cleared. The roach of the upper of the double topsails was the least, and in some cases it was straight and laced to the lower topsail yard. British clippers tended to keep the leeches of the courses almost vertical and the leeches of the sails above in a good taper to a small skysail or royal.

The clews of square sails and fore and aft sails for merchant ships early in the century were made as separate rope cringles sewn to the corners of the boltrope (naval sail makers made the clew by working a loop in the boltrope itself. These clews frequently broke and metal thimbles were fitted in them for extra strength, and by about mid-century solid metal iron clews were used, either in ring form or as a fashioned spectacle iron, either of which would outlive the sail. The bowline cringles, which once were fitted on all ships' square sails, survived on a few clippers to the end of the era. They had a useful function in holding the windward leech of the sail well forward and in a slight curve to catch the wind in the body, as without them the tack, on the courses, or sheet on upper sails, pulled the leech into a straight line. Bowlines went out of fashion mainly because they were extra tackle to maintain and operate.

The shape of the lower studdingsails (stunsails) depended largely on the width of the lower course itself, which if very wide in spread would need a narrower stunsail. A boom extended this stunsail outboard and was fitted to a gooseneck from the ship's side abreast the mast which would be on the rim of the channels if there were any. This boom could be about 55 ft long and 12 in. in diameter, but shorter ones were more practicable.  It could be eliminated by making the stunsail triangular to meet the ship's side as was done in the case of the Cutty Sark, although many modern paintings of her wrongly show a boom with a rectangular stunsail.  Stunsails were fitted each side of the mast on the fore and main, and on rare occasions on the mizzen topsail. With the wind from aft both sides would be set abaft their adjacent sails, but with the yards braced a small amount the stunsails on the lee side would be set on the fore side of their adjacent sails, until the yards were braced sharply when the lee ones would be taken in. They were stowed vertically with lashings to the insides of the topmast shrouds, when frequently required; otherwise on the boat skids or deckhouse roof. The lower stunsail booms were housed along the side of the fore channel on each side, resting in a crutch about a 1/3rd of its length from the end.   

Another form of boom resembling the lower stuns ail boom and mentioned at times for some tea clippers was called the passaree boom. This was a shorter boom fitted each side of the foremast from a gooseneck at a height to clear the bulwark. Each boom was set athwartships, their lengths extending slightly beyond the foreyard. With a following wind and the sail set square athwartships, each clew would be extended from these booms thus making the sail lie nearly flat. Without them the clews would be held in close to the bulwarks with the sail forming a rounded belly as was the case with the main course. The booms could be stowed from their goosenecks to crutches on the forecastle deck or removed entirely.

Sail Making

A large number of sails is required for the Clipper ship One of the rooms at the shipyard is set up as a sail loft.  The sails on Clipper are made, cut and sewn in the traditional way by hand but the design of the sails is undertaken by a Marine Architect. The sailmaker also calculates the correct draught or belly of the sail. A draught is created in the sail by using narrower strips in places. It takes experience and skill to create the correct draught.  Traditional materials for the rigging plan of of a Clipper were flax, linen, cotton, manila and hemp. The twine and the yarn are also 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 Nneedle: 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 hardwood) 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 draught 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, the sailmakers lay 2 strips slightly overlapping by 3 cm for example. Before sewing up the complete seam you tack the seam first every 50 cm.  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. The maker sits on the sailmaker’s bench with the strips on the table. with a large quantity of thread, he ties a knot in the end of the thread and insert the other end through the needle. Keeping the seam flat in front of him. Work from thin to thick, by pushing the needle down into the single layer of sailcloth and pushing it towards the double part of the seam. He pushes it up again diagonally on the seam approximately 5 mm further along the seam, through 2 layers of sailcloth. The 2nd stitch is made about 1 cm further along (normally 7 stitches along the length of the sail needle). Making sure that the next stitches are always just as long and evenly spaced so that you create a regular pattern.  Once he has sewn up the seam on one side using a flat stitch he turns over the sail and sews up the same seam on the other side, also using a flat stitch.  He 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 4 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.  He creates 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. He does this by laying the sail flat on the table or on the floor. Now folding the edge of the sail by about 4 centimetres and makes 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 he sews up the entire hem using a flat stitch. he does this, by sitting 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 2 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 he uses 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 1 cm from the edge. This is done by sewing loops onto 1 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 he 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 a separate skill. The cringles are tied to the leech ropes in the correct positions, before they are sewn onto the sails. 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 he 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. They used scissors or a small knife to further snip the holes crossways.  He then makes the grommets using rope. This is done by unwinding the 3 strands of a piece of rope of 3 strands of approximately a 500mm long. Make sure that the ends do not unravel by binding each end of the stranding.  He take one strand and make a loops of approximately 5 cm cross-section in the centre of this. Making sure that both ends are the same length. Now he takes one of the ends, and starts to twist around the loop in the direction of the end. Inserting the end through the loop and make sure that the strand sits neatly in the recesses in the loop. Continuing until he makes a complete circle. He takes the other end and twist this around the loop also in the direction of that end. Inserting the end through the loop and making sure that the strand sits neatly in the recesses in the loop. Continuing until he has made a complete circle. The loop now looks like a circle that has been made from the same thickness of rope from which he used the 3 strands. The ends of the two strands 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 4 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 he has 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.

Sailmaker's Whipping Tying
Thread the twine between the strands. Wrap the long end around the rope. Pass it under a strand, down a groove and under a strand, up a groove and under a strand. Similarly, pass the short end down, under, up, under, down and under. Tie the ends with Square (Reef) knots. Pull them through, cut short, and trim.  The Sailmaker's Whipping is the most secure whipping. The whipping turns are contained by the frapping turns that both grip the rope and prevent the whipping from unwinding if damaged. It looks most satisfying when applied to the end of a 3-strand rope - each pair of frapping strands follows the twist of the rope and is accommodated in the groove. This whipping can be used equally well on braided or kernmantle rope - but greater care is required to distribute the frapping turns evenly round the whipping.

There are several variations of this whipping: 
Needles: With 3-stranded rope, this whipping can often be tied without a needle: the strands of the rope can be opened up by hand to pass the twine through between them. However, a large needle makes the task easier and is essential equipment when tying a Sailmaker's Whipping round a braided or kernmantle rope.
Number of Frapping Turns: Many texts describe this whipping with just 1 frapping strand lying in each groove - which necessitates a different start to the whipping. The short end is initially threaded diagonally and is wound inside the whipping. When using a single frapping turn, the short end must be left outside the whipping turns and then threaded up outside the whipping and through the rope to trap the long end.
Completing the Whipping: Finishing the knot with a chain of square knots. If necessary, use a needle to pull this chain through the rope. The knots are then buried and very unlikely to shake loose.
Braided Rope: It is relatively easy to decide where to thread the twine in 3-stranded rope - the gap between each of the 3 strands provides a natural target and the 3 strands dictate that 1 pair of frapping turns will lie in each groove. In braided rope the principle is the same, the frapping turns should be distributed evenly round the rope. However, in smaller braided ropes, it is not uncommon to see just 2 sets of frapping turns 180º apart instead of 3 sets 120º apart. For larger, and more valuable rope, 3 sets are strongly recommended.

Woodcuts from England look to be about c.1815 or so. One shows two sailmakers on a communal bench roping  in a sail.  The second shows sailors serving what looks to be a main backstay or perhaps an anchor cable, but a close study of the large version will leave you wondering what they're doing - the artist was probably not a seaman and got the process about 80% right.

Send mail to jazzmaster@jazzeddie.f2s.com with questions or comments about the design of this web site.
Last modified: 01/09/2013