Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: In The Palm Of Yer Hand

Sailmaker's Palm from the 1800's in the Maine Marine Historical Society via

In Patrick O'Brian's novel The Truelove (Clarissa Oakes in the U.K.), Captain Jack Aubrey is begrudgingly shuffling deportees to New South Wales aboard the Nutmeg of Consolation. When convicted murderess (she had good cause, believe me) Clarissa accepts a proposal of marriage from Nutmeg's gunner, Jack gives her some of the flaming red silk he previously bought for his wife, to make a gown (hell to pay later on that score). What is interesting here is not Clarissa's history of abuse or Sophie Aubrey's shrewish jealousy but who makes the bride's wedding dress from that crimson fabric. It is not, as one might imagine, the bride herself nor even one of the other female prisoners. It is in fact the finest tailor in the crew: Barret Bonden, the Captain's coxswain.

It may come as some surprise to the lubbers that happen upon my seafaring ramblings (not to the Brethren, however) that seamen in the age of sail were by and large magicians with a needle. Many seafarers before the dawn of naval uniforms, and without question aboard freebooters, sewed their own clothes. If they couldn't sew they could do something else, such as leather work for instance, and men traded their skill with a mate to keep both of them in clothes, shoes (for land use only), belts and tools.

Keeping sails in top condition and making new ones when needed was an almost constant job aboard a sailing ship. Caring for the sails evolved into a kind of ritual, done on certain days and at certain times much like swabbing the deck. The heavy canvas, sometimes sewn double and triple thick, would seem ridiculously difficult to just get a needle through much less maintain the even stitching that was necessary for a sail to function properly. Thimbles are fine, of course, but if you've ever tried to sew a button on a pair of jeans you know just how useless even a "heavy duty" thimble can be. And nothing hurts, aside from maybe a burn, quite like having the back end of a needle jam itself through the thimble and up into your finger.

Here's where the leather workers aboard ship came to the rescue. The tool shown above is a palm or sailmaker's palm and it could save not just your thumb but your entire hand. Palms are generally made of leather for left and right handed people and are used as the name implies. The body of the tool sits in the hand and the thinner portion wraps around to buckle at the hole through which you put your thumb. The metal thimble, with it's handy indentations, is then used to push the needle through all those layers of canvas and even rope to make or mend sails. The benefit of a palm over a simple thimble is that the pressure of the entire hand, not just one finger, can be applied against the resistance of the canvas.

Your humble hostess has always opined that sailors were pretty clever. Once again, a simple tool proves me at least partially correct. If you'd like a modern sailormaker's palm, an excellent replica of the kind shown above is available at Alternatively, if your as handy as our seafaring ancestors, find instructions for making your own at

So get out and mend some sail, mates. Time's a wastin' and the horizon draws closer. Tomorrow a little celebration for a Triple P milestone. See you then for Friday Booty!


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! It's no wonder you love the sailors so much... I'm pretty sure it takes both strength and skill to use these tools properly. Nice tie-in to the Aubrey-Maturin books too. I know what the milestone is (congratulations in advance, Pirate Queen!) but I won't spoil the surprise for those who don't...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I still maintain that sailors are some of the hardest working, most under-appreciated men and women on the planet. Plus, you gotta love a man who can make a wedding gown by hand, don't you?