Textiles have played many important roles throughout history. The first pieces of clothing helped humans survive the elements, and masterpieces like Starry night and the Mona Lisa were painted on humble woven canvas. It was also simple woven cloth that allowed humans to explore the globe: namely, the sail.
The sixteenth century marked the start of the “Age of Sail,” an era when ships with sails ruled the ocean until the invention of the steam engine in the nineteenth century. Known as duck (a modified version of doek, the Dutch word for cloth), the earliest sailcloth was woven from linen and sometimes hemp. These sails were strong, but they had a tendency to rot and deteriorate quickly. Even so, linen remained the fabric of choice until the nineteenth century.
It was around the War of 1812 that cotton sailcloth entered the scene. As war raged, the demand for duck rose dramatically and the supply of sailcloth to the United States had been cut off. Out of necessity, the United States relied on cotton sailcloth that could be produced entirely in-country and was also much lighter than its linen counterparts.
Today cotton and linen have both been supplanted by a variety of synthetics including nylon, polyester, and even Kevlar. These manmade materials are lightweight, strong, and UV-resistant.