While studying the Arab and African sea trade along the Red Sea and points south, I read an article on Nabataea.net that reads

It is thought that originally sails were woven from coconut of palm leaves, and that eventually cotton cloth became the favorite for merchants on long voyages. Cotton cloth was manufactured in India.
On the other hand, Wikipedia indicates in its discussion of "Western tradition" in sailcloth that
Linen was the traditional fiber of sails until it was supplanted by cotton during the 19th century.
Given that the Nabataean's lived at the south end of the Levant, they aren't really "western", but at the same time, they would have had ready access to linen from Egypt. Why would they ship cotton fabric all the way from India for their sails?

  • Reading the two quotes it's possible that all three materials were used; initially woven palm leaves then linen and finally, in the 19th Century, cotton. By the 19th Century, the levant would have been on regular trade routes between India and Europe, so bringing in cotton would not have been a problem.
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 22, 2017 at 6:08
  • @SteveBird Indeed, only even far earlier. Mar 22, 2017 at 6:53
  • Wikipedia article on Cotton says that after the Alexander conquest cotton spread to Egypt and Middle East. So Nabatean could use cotton for their sails.
    – Alex
    Mar 22, 2017 at 12:56
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    Here's a book that states on p. 90 that Egypt also grew some cotton and that cotton production actually dominated over flax in Syria and Palestine. (books.google.com/…) I'm tempted to speculate that cotton may have been superior to flax but less available to Europeans.
    – Brian Z
    Mar 23, 2017 at 15:32
  • Actually, "Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants (Christopher Cumo, 2013) hints at the right answer, and "Consumption, Trade, and Innovation (Marijke van der Veen, 2011), as mentioned by @Brian_Z, confirms that cotton fabric was available, and probably grown in Arabia for the Nabataean era. Other answers were deleted; should I be answering myself?
    – papidave
    Mar 27, 2017 at 1:41

2 Answers 2



It’s less about availability, both would be available to Nabataean traders. Linen use in India actually predates cotton.

History of Linen on the Indian Subcontinent
Linen was used in India before the use of cotton, and cultivation of flax dates back to the Neolithic and late period of Stone Age [Dhoni, 1994]. Linen flourished well in Indian subcontinent as it grows well in both the peninsular south and alluvial soil of the north.

Cotton one of Egypts Most Famous Exports
Also Cotton had been grown in Egypt since 3000 BC.

Nabataean sailing ships dated from the 6th century BC and did not share the same criteria with the 19th century ships which would select cotton when given the choice of linen. Such ships which choose cotton over linen were an exception to the rule prior to the introduction of steam ships. With both cotton and linen available to Nabataean sailors the choice is clear which would be preferred for the kinds of ships the Nabataean traders favored. Smaller ships, with simple rigging outfitted for long haul cruising. For longer voyages linen was preferred even if it had to be purchased at a premium. Linen simply had superior properties for long haul cruising, even if for racing cotton would be superior.

This is actually a perennial question for sailors which is still topical today. Balancing durability and strength with performance, be it cotton vs linen per your question, or Dacron vs composites the choices for today. The materials change the decision criteria doesn’t; lighter less durable materials are superior for racing, but heavier more reliable materials are more valued for long haul cruizing.

Both Cotton and Linen make poor sails by modern standards. They both absorb water, rot in UV light, and are highly subject to mold. Linen is stronger. Cotton is lighter. By stronger there are two meanings. It lasts longer without tearing and more importantly holds its shape better without stretching. Tears can be sewn but stretched sales need to be replaced. For reliability And predictability Linen was the preferred material even when more expensive, even when cotton was more readily available. Linen was preferred over cotton during the age of sailing ships, if there was a choice because it was more dependable, lasted longer and perhaps most importantly was more predictable when eroding. If racing durability took a back seat to weight. For new sails cotton performed could perform better than linen, stretching wasn't a problem as the sails could be replaced at the beginning of each race, weight was the primary concern.

Cotton only replaced linen as the preferred fabric in the 19th century for two reasons.

(1) sailing ships got so sophisticated with so many sails linen just became to heavy to manage, too time consuming to lift. Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory has 37 sails or 4 acres of surface area in 1780, By 1850 a similar ship with then more modern rigging might have more than 100 different types of sails to take advantage of different types of weather and wind conditions.

(2) Cotton as a preference over linen was especially pronounced after the age of sailing was concluded, when practicality took a back seat to performance as sailing ships ceased to be vehicles of war and commerce and became pleasure craft and status symbols.

Still every ship which can float linen can float cotton sails. So if it were a necessity cotton would do, and sometimes it was a necessity.

Wikipedia: Sailcloth
During the age of sailing(the mid 1800s) cotton was used in cruising ships (merchant and military) mostly when linen could not be had at all.

Wikipedia: Sailcloth
If you look at the United States which was the largest producer of cotton; linen which depended upon imported flaxen, was still the fabric of choice for sails. In US merchantman and war ships, cotton was only used when global affairs conspired to make linen unavailable. Like the war of 1812. But once linen became available again it was used again. Cotton didn’t surpass linen on ships until after the steam ship pushed sailing ships out of the worlds navy’s and merchant fleets post 1860's.


  • 1
    I upvoted this ~15 min after it was written thinking it's great but could use a few sources - and now I wish I could upvote this twice. :-) Apr 24, 2018 at 18:49
  • The evidence is quite indirect, although I tend to come to a similar conclusion, given the dichotomy. Except that cotton as such has not always been such a bad rep, cf sailcloth. Apr 24, 2018 at 20:53
  • Slightly off topic, but would linen have been more widely used in the 17th century? Jul 13, 2019 at 23:23
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    @MatthewFord linen was a more desired choice for long haul military and merchant ships due to its reliability. Cotton was chosen for shorter trips like racing or when linen wasn’t available up to the golden age of sailing. During this period sails became so specialized cotton became preferred for som sails due to its liter weight and easier storing and handling. So yes generally linen in the 17 century
    – user27618
    Jul 14, 2019 at 4:29

In that era, cotton was a luxury fiber

Before roughly 1000AD, cotton was quite expensive. It is not easy to remove the seeds from the cotton boll, early cotton plants were not nearly as productive as modern varieties, and picking cotton requires a lot of unpleasant labor.

By the Guptan period, circa 200 AD, the Indians were selling cotton as a luxury good to their neighbors in the east and west—the Chinese and the Parthians. Further west, the Roman considered cotton as luxurious and as expensive as silk, which they bought from Arabic or Parthian traders.


Cotton began to become much more common after c.700AD as its cultivation spread and over the subsequent centuries it became increasingly available and inexpensive. Still, it was still a luxury good when it was introduced to European markets in the 15th century.

Flax, on the other hand, lends itself easily to mass production and has always been among the cheapest fibers used by man. At the time of the Nabataeans, it would have been the obvious choice for sails.

  • "Flax"…"always among the cheapest fibers"? Looking at current prices that seems to have changed… Apr 24, 2018 at 20:46
  • @pokep Domestic Cotton was cheaper than imported Linen in the United States during the age of sail. The United States being the greatest source of Cotton during that age. Yet Cotton only displaced Linen in US sails according to my given sources during wars when Linen was not to be had. After the wars concluded, Linen again displaced Cotton as the material of choice for sails. It wasn't about the cost, it was about the greater durability and predictability of wear which Linen posesses. This was the rule during the age of sail, a rule with specific exceptions also given above..
    – user27618
    Oct 12, 2018 at 18:45

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