A sail can be defined as a large piece of strong cloth that can catch the wind to move a vessel or vehicle forward. Sails, affixed to single hull and double hull voyaging canoes, were instrumental in the discovery and population of the Pacific islands. Their form reflected in infinite variety the imagination and experimentations of the different peoples who explored the vast extensions of the Pacific ocean and populated their countless islands.
Most of their sails were triangular, attached to v-shaped spars. They were made of vegetable material such as pandanus which was plaited in strips and might have been sewn together with cord twined from bark fibres such as oronga (Touchardia latifolia) or au (Hibiscus tiliaceus).
Even though the wooden and later iron sailing ships of seafaring European explorers differed hugely from the well-balanced Pacific islands catamarans, their square or triangular cloth sails were also shaped to accommodate the play of wind and water forces. Like the Edna, they had many differently shaped sails.
Sailcloth, also called ‘duck’, derived from the Dutch word for cloth = doek, was woven from strong flax or hemp, and in the 19th century, cotton fibres. Today, most sails are made of synthetic materials.
Spirit – from Latin spiritus = soul, courage, vigor, breath – can be considered the non-material, the essence, the animating force that brings a body to life, the energy that propels us forward (French: l’esprit), the in-spiration that gives a project momentum, the a-spiration that causes us to reach a goal. Spirit is synonymous with psyche, soul, and in some languages such as my own (spirit in German = Geist) with mind. Spirit is “the self-supporting absolutely real ultimate being (Wesen = essence).”
What would a Spirit Sail have to look like?
In my “quest for the perfect shape” of this ‘spirit sail’ I learn that “[t]here is no such thing as the best sail shape – there are countless different “best” shapes, depending on the wind, waves, boat type & size, even weather & air temperature.” Duh, no help here! I guess, it will be entirely up to my imagination.
So: what do I want it to look like?
- it should have a preferably universal sail shape to be recognizable as a sail
- it should be transparent to refer to the spirit’s invisibility
- it should be delicate without being frail to hint at spiritual acuity
- it should be visible in daylight and at night-time to symbolise the infinity of spirit
- it should be textile – textile signifying for me both text and touch
- it should be large enough to be seen from afar and small enough to be made in my studio
I will use the materials that I have brought and will still bring in touch with the Edna’s remains. I ordered Polymer ribbon that glows in the dark after having been exposed to UV light. I am awaiting textile heat-set paint medium to experiment with rare earth pigments that have the same effect.
From photographs I could gather that both the Edna and our Cook Islands Vaka (double-hull voyaging canoe) “Marumaru Atua” use(d) a jib. Consequently my spirit sail will have a jib-like triangular shape. Based on the dimensions of the Edna, a suitable jib’s longest side would have to be some 12 m long. However my sail will not have to be functional and for practical reasons I will make it half that size which is more manageable considering work space and materials.
My first experiment relates to the woven strips that Pacific islands sails were made of. I tear two of my rust-impregnated fabrics into strips and weave them together.
The double layer of woven strips will make the resulting cloth strong. Once finish I realize that the cloth, being much softer than dried pandanus strips of course, does not hold together all that well when woven in strips.
I decide that I don’t want to paint a design on to my sail, but I don’t just want it to be plain either. I want the design to develop from the way I manipulate the various materials, be it their shape or their colour or both. Both waves and the airflow that propels a sail forward create vortices. This has inspired me to use the spiral as my spirit sail’s symbol.
Machine-sewn lace techniques will give my sail certain transparency. My next sample uses some of the torn-fabric strings, with which I have bound materials to the Edna’s remains, as basic material.
The wet season has started and I learn my second lesson: Fabric that has been soaked in salt water – as have all the fabrics that touched the Edna – needs to be washed until all salt has been washed out! I was too lazy to do so and now find that the salty fabric soaks up moisture from the air. The moist fabric makes the water-soluble (!) stabilizer sticky and nearly impossible to work with!
In this sample I incorporate small pieces of the fairly expensive luminous ribbon just to try it out. The material is very rubbery and not exactly easy to sew through. My machine skips a few stitches here and there. I learn my third lesson: I need to reduce the speed when sewing over the ribbon.
There are endless possibilities for patterning the sail. The two sewing samples are only the start. I use Photoshop and play with their photos to get an idea of what can be done.
 Guiot, H. (2007), Va’a – La pirogue polynésienne, Au Vent des Îles, French Polynesia: Tahiti
 Hegel, G.W.F. (1807, 2010), The Phenomenology of Spirit (The Phenomenology of Mind), Digireads.com Publishing, Kindle Edition, Loc. 6336