Heritage Crafts

Sail making

The making of sails for boats and other vessels, with specific reference to the hand-stitching of the rope around the edges of the sail.
Craft category
Historic area of significance
UK (coastal regions)
Area practiced currently
UK (coastal regions)
Origin in the UK
15th Century
Current No. of professionals (Main income)
21-50 (See ‘Other information’ section for more details)
Current No. of trainees


Sailmaking goes back centuries and can be seen in many ancient civilisations such as the  Pacific Islanders and the Egyptians. Sails have developed enormously over the years, made originally from flax (linen), then cotton (the best being Sudanese or Egyptian Cotton) and more recently from man made polyester derived fabrics, Essentially the process has remained similar, to provide a robust and stable expanse of cloth that will create and keep a shape to provide horizontal lift to propel a boat.

Sailmaking can be dated as far back as the Vikings but as an industry we would recognise it came to prominence in the 15th century particularly with the creation and ascendancy of the Navy.


Techniques include ‘lofting’ on a floor with strings and battens, creating broadseaming and edge curves to make a controlled aerofoil shape in the sail, then building it using both machine and hand sewing.

Classic sailmaking has additional ‘finishing’ techniques such as hand worked rings, leatherwork, ropework, rat tailing etc. This not only provides strength and protection but is aesthetically pleasing to the classic yachts.



Issues affecting the viability

  • Technology: Sail panels have been sewn together with machines for 150 years. The majority of hand-sewing involves the edging and other details on the sails. Even where the sails are sewn by hand machines or by hand the design is usually computer-produced and sent to a computerised cutting machine. The parts come back as a jigsaw to be sewn in whatever way is decided. Apart from individuals making the odd sail, there are no firms dedicated to hand-made sails.
  • Market issues: Many people would like to have sails made traditionally, but very few are willing to pay the price of someone working eight hours a day hand-sewing. The exception might be a restoration project financed by public or charitable funds. The future will depend on builders and restorers of traditional boats being willing to spend the extra money for authenticity.
  • Training and skills issues: There are still people able to make sails by hand, but they are not being replaced as they retire. There is virtually no training, although some traditional sail making is taught as part of boatbuilding courses, usually by visiting tutors. A young person wanting to start in traditional sail making would need to join a mechanised firm that might have a branch doing traditional work, or find one of the few ‘old boys’ who still know the craft.

Support organisations


Training organisations

  • Orkney College, Scotland: Led by Mark Shiner. A practical week comes at the end of a period of
    online study covering traditional sail design theory and lofting skills which do not rely on
    computer aided design (CAD), but on ancient rules and measuring practices. Includes traditional
    hand finishing techniques. Mark also runs day
    workshops at traditional maritime events and other venues.
  • Boat Building Academy, Lyme Regis: Led by Mark Matthews. Includes, making and repair.
  • MM Sail solutions – Mark Matthews: teaches sail making and repair courses

Craftspeople currently known

Other information

Status: Traditional sail making is considered to be vulnerable. While the numbers are relatively small (opinions differ as to whether there are 11-20 or 21-50 skilled craftspeople), there are a reasonable number doing it and while craftspeople may not be in their 20s, not everyone is over the age of 60.

The Maritime Studies Department at Orkney College in the Orkney Islands, Scotland runs a traditional sail making course. The course features traditional handwork, sewn eyelets and cringles, working with both traditional canvas and modern sailcloth. Course leader Mark Shiner is in discussion with the current sail making industry about a national qualification for new-start sailmakers.

Modern industrial sail making employs will over 100 people.

National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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