A Short History of the Shade Sail


Some people may view the use of shade sails as a modern innovation – but a trip back 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 also made great use of fabric as a way 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 when they installed large canvas screens at the Colosseum in Rome. These screens were hauled into place by sailors 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 thanks to the sailors experience in handling sails aboard Roman galleys at sea. The cloth that was used was rather heavy and inflexible, but lent itself very well towards 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 also have reason to believe that the Byzantine Greeks used sails for shade in the battlefield during battles with western crusaders in the 12th century.

However, throughout the Middle Ages and up to fairly recently, cost and availably of durable key materials meant that widespread application of shade sails never really eventuated. For many years, shade canopies like circus tents were made of heavy canvas and other organic materials and 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 where architects often used them to shade the patios, forgoing the more traditional arbours and foliage covered pergolas. Many would most likely happily resign the architectural forays of the 70’s to the dustbin, but (thankfully) unlike popcorn ceilings, A-frame homes and a startling penchant for avocado green bathrooms, the shade sail survived thanks to its usefulness and attractive forms. Popularity grew even greater with the development of more durable and inexpensive fabrics. In particular, useful versions of shade cloth appeared in the early 1990s especially in Australia and South Africa. These have continued to be refined to enable benefits such as 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 and everything else that has happened 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!