Some people may view the use of shade sails as a modern innovation. However, a trip through the annals of history will soon show that that is not the case. The biblical Book of Ezekiel mentions sails of byssus and awnings of blue and purple in the ancient city of Tyre. Ancient societies including the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used large pieces of canvas to provide shade over their living and entertaining areas. The markets and stalls that filled the streets of the ancient cities of the world used fabric to protect both vendors and their goods from the heat of the sun.
The Romans were also responsible for what was probably the first retractable stadium awning. They installed large canvas screens at the Colosseum in Rome. Sailors hauled these screens into place to shield the crowds from the heat of the sun while they watched men and animals fighting to the death as entertainment. This was presumably due to the sailors’ experience handling sails aboard Roman galleys at sea. Rather heavy and inflexible cloth lent itself very well to providing shade and shelter from the weather in Rome. It wasn’t until the 21st Century that this feat was recreated – albeit with much more modern materials and machinery in place of the Roman sailors.
Historians and archaeologists believe that the Byzantine Greeks used sails for shade in the battlefield during battles with western crusaders in the 12th century.
Innovation in the Middle Ages
However, throughout the Middle Ages and up to fairly recently, cost and availability of durable key materials meant the widespread application of shade sails was scarce. For many years, shade canopies like circus tents were made of heavy canvas and other organic materials. The use of the principle of a cloth shade structure was largely limited to commercial purposes.
Modern versions of shade sails became popular in more wealthy homes of the 1970’s. Architects often used them to shade the patios, forgoing the more traditional arbours and foliage-covered pergolas. Many would happily resign the architectural forays of the 70’s to the dustbin. Thankfully, unlike popcorn ceilings, a startling penchant for avocado green bathrooms, the shade sail survived. Popularity grew even greater with the development of more durable and inexpensive fabrics. Useful versions of shade cloth appeared in the early 1990s especially in Australia and South Africa. Continued refinements enable increased protection from UV radiation, high light transmission and stronger weaving techniques that prevent the sails from fraying and tearing.
So, after a few thousand years, the rise and fall of empires since the Pharaohs ruled Egypt, the shade sail has emerged as the sleek and refined structure that it is today. Who knows what the future will bring in the way of new developments for these products? We don’t, that’s for sure. But we’re keen to find out…should be interesting!