The Woollen Sail


In mid-summer  2001 a meeting between two women took place on board the knarr Ottar – a meeting which could easely  have taken place some 1000 years ago. 

Ottar is an exact copy of  Skuldelev I, a Viking Ship dating from around 1000 AC and found on the bottom of Roskilde Fjord along with four other ships. The original Ottar was a 52 feet broad-beamed boat called a knarr, featuring a much bulkier and stubbier hull than the famous longships. This type of boat was able to sail to Shetland, Orkney or anywhere  in the North Atlantic, even in rather bad weather. Her cargo could inklude men, women, children, livestock and provisions.  


 Copyright: The Viking Ship Museum,  Roskilde.                                                   Photo: Werner Karrasch,

A crewmember of the Ottar was explaining  how she was to handle in open sea, and how the rest of the crew had just begun to learn a little about her excellent sailing characteristics. They had experienced how the rigging and the sail was half of her secrets. Testing had revealed that her old-fashioned  square sail was second to none compared with modern sails. Ottar lay more steady on the water (not in the water!) and she was even excellent when turning her stem up to the wind. 

The secret of the sail was just what the meeting of these two women was all about. Much attention was paid to choice of raw materials and types of weave, qualities absolutely necessary in open seas when heading towards western horizons. Contrary to the skipper, who saw the sail as an integrated part of his ship, the two women discussed and felt with their hands the tiny small differences in the structure of the cloth. It was indeed made of wool, wool from old northern double-coated sheep still living in Norway, Iceland, North Ronaldsay and other North Atlantic Islands. The structure was a sophisticated mix of long hairy outer coat to give strength (tog) and the under coat (thel) to give tightness to the sail. When touching the surface of the cloth, their hands became slightly yellowish  because of the treatment with fish-oil and ochre. 

This experimental, woollen sail was woven in sections such that they might compare and assess three different types of wool;- from adult spaelsau, (spel-sheep), from spaelsau lambs and from Norwegian Primitive Sheep (Villsau) (Feral Sheep). A lot of secrets had to be tested.   



 Copyright: Sheep-Isle                                                                                                photo: Sheep-Isle


In the picture Amy (right) describes to “Nirvana” how she has created the sail. Amy is from Hitra, an island  in coastal Trøndelag, Norway. Her flock of villsau lives year round on a remote little island. She loves her flock because of their ability to live on their own, and no less because of their wool. Amy worked on her first sail for about 3 years, the sail which carried Sara Kjerstine over the Norwegian Sea to Shetland. But back onboard Ottar she reveals some secrets. She doesn’t just work strictly scientific but also with considerable attention to knowledge based intuition – the way they may have done things in practice 1000 years ago. “Nirvana” is listening. She is what we today should call a “land-lubber”. She brought the spælsau to Denmark from Norway some 20 years ago and she is still second to none when it comes to modern use of the wool, double-coated just like Spælsau and villsau. The two women had  an exchange of experiences at a high level. For an outsider – an initiation in secrets. For them – very much as a matter of fact, just the way women did it some 1000 years ago.


On the Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde website.  You will find two detailed articles. One on “Ottar” and one on the Woollen Sail: 

The Ocean-Going Trader:

The Woollen Sail:        

The star on Sheep-Isle – the little tough short-tailed, double-coated sheep – is only mentioned sporadically in the features above.

The double-coated sheep was the only breed in the Viking Age and it was spread by the Viking settlers all over the North Atlantic.( Stefan Adalsteinsson): The double-coated sheep's wool was the basis for making sails. Very skilled women also played an important part in making high quality sails. They knew the right moment for plucking (rooing)  and they knew the way to separate the outer coat (long coarse fibres) from the inner coat (short fine fibres).

Today, Amy Lightfoot has considerable knowledge having spent a lot of her time trying to find out how women worked with wool 1000 years ago, from rooing to the finished woollen sail. Amy will later tell about harvesting of wool from the double-coated sheep, and this little creature will have to reveal the qualities of its wool, not only as they were a 1000 years ago, but also in the hands of modern crafters.

The closing photo is from North Ronaldsay – a typical representative of the double-coated sheep


 North  Ronaldsay Native Sheep grazing seaweed

Photo      S-I