Wool – it makes you sail faster

Following an exciting adventure to Wool on the Wall this weekend, I have been fascinated to discover that Viking sails used to be made out of heavy woollen cloth – woven on massive looms.

Speedy sail fabric?

I was somewhat stunned by this as I have never thought of sheep as particularly aerodynamic, until I began to think about it and wonder what EXACTLY I thought sails were made of pre-Mylar (and pre crispy-fabric.  And pre fabric that used to be crispy but now just sits in a heap – dependent entirely upon how old and rubbishy the boat I had just bought off E-bay actually was).  And it turns out I’m not the only one – in fact there have been actual studies on what these sails were made out of – and seem to prove that woollen sails can outperform some of the other sail materials throughout to be used at the time – Hemp and Linen –

“In 1975 Svend Larsen concluded his book, ‘Vikingsernes hav’, by stating that beating to windward cannot be done with woollen sails because they are ‘fleecy, nappy, yielding and leaky’ (Larsen, 1975). It is now known that high cover factor woollen square-sails could beat at 66 degrees into the wind and most likely out-perform linen and hemp sails. Furthermore it has been proved conclusively that the process of smorring enables the properties of the wool sail to be improved and ‘trimmed’ during use.”

“Viking woollen square-sails and fabric cover factor” – Bill Cooke, Carol Christiansen, Lena Hammarlund http://www.reikfelag.ca/files/Viking_woolen_sails.pdf

I was also a little disappointed to discover that they were likely red from dying with ‘Madder Root’ rather than from the blood of their enemies as I have always thought – well to be fair the practicalities would probably have been a nightmare….

Its a plant. Not a weapon of mass enemy destruction at all.

Now I was actually quite excited about this as my degree was in Ancient History and Archaeology.  This was purely due to an Indiana Jones fascination.

The many faces and talents of Indiana Jones

However turns out that doing this degree doesn’t

  1. Turn you into Indy
  2.  Help you meet a man like Indy
  3.  Help you do anything that Indy actually does

Maybe I should have realised this as it’s been awhile since any mad Nazi’s have been chasing archaeologists around the globe, but I do think the university should have a disclaimer – “Doing this degree will NOT help you find the Holy Grail”.

It actually consists of lots of scraping in the ground hoping beyond hope (and the evidence of the last three months in the rain) that this trowelful of earth will actually be the one that reveals a magnificent mosaic floor or similar*.

*N.B. this only ever actually happens on Time Team.  It’s not real archaeology.

So I am thrilled that someone with this background has spent time investigating this.  The looms they use are huge – and these wouldn’t be big enough for the size of sails we would be talking about, so there would be a massive amount of work involved.  In fact it probably explains why the Vikings had to steal all those sheep.

Ginormous Loom

I am now wondering if I should be knitting myself a new sail – although not in red – I don’t have any madder in the garden and I think the authorities would have something to say about me collecting the blood of my enemies.


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