An Ode to North Atlantic Fishermen

Inspired by a centuries-old maritime tradition and cut from exceedingly rare sails, the Heritage Tanbark Market Tote honors the sailors who handmade rugged tanbark sails to withstand harsh conditions.

The Origin of Tanning with Bark

The method of plant-based tanning dates all the way back to 3000 BC when Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures invented the practice. Tanning works by exposing a material like leather or canvas to astringent tannins present in the leaves and bark of many plants. These tannins bind to the material, preserving it and making it resistant to decomposition, mold, and mildew. At its inception, plant-based tanning was almost exclusively used to tan leather, a critical material in the ancient world that was used for everything from clothes and armor to hinges and wineskins.

Throughout the centuries that followed, humans perfected the craft, learning that bark of certain trees would impart a particular color, and adding other plants to impart color as well. By 1500 AD humans were tanning, dyeing, and stitching incredibly ornate and durable pieces, but they had not yet begun tanning their sails.

Old image of fishermen tanning sails

The First Tanbark Sails

In 1604 the first instance of the word "tanbark" appeared in English writing, and while there is no guarantee it was specifically referring to sails tanned with bark, it's no coincidence shortly thereafter record of tanbark sails started to appear as well. In England and France, the timber industry was already well under way, processing wood for construction of ships, buildings, and furniture. At the lumber mills, specialized workers called "barkers" were tasked with stripping the bark of felled trees, then processing the bark for sale. The trees they harvested consisted of oak, hemlock, alder, and fir, all trees known for their tannins imparting a reddish-brown color. The greater availability of bark made it increasingly economical to tan with and enabled savvy mariners to tan entire sails, nets, and traps.

Breton fishermen were a group well known for sailing with the distinctive reddish-brown tanbark sails. The fishermen found great utility in tanning their sails because they withstood mold and mildew and proved to be far more durable. At that time in history, sails were primarily made from cotton and hemp which were functional, but susceptible to decomposition and UV light, two factors tanned sails resisted. Breton fishermen also became known for their iconic red pants that they would fashion from tanbark scraps.

Across the Atlantic in Newfoundland, tanning sails and fishing equipment was also a popular practice, although it required a whole community effort to achieve success. Lacking the logistics of a well-established lumber industry, whole fishing communities would dedicate days to "barking" their equipment, starting with the harvest of sticks and saplings, then processing them, and mixing them in to large barking kettles. Resembling a "witch's cauldron," the barking kettles were massive and took great energy investment to bring to a boil, preparing the tanning solution. After a day of dunking and tanning, the rocky shores and wharves would be decorated in all manner of fishing equipment, left out to dry and seal in the tannins.

Ship with tanbark sails on water

Tanbark Today

Today tanbark sails are no longer made from hemp or cotton, nor dunked in great barking kettles, but retain some of original tanbark benefits while being made from modern sail cloth. Darker, brown sails absorb more sunlight and are less prone to blind a sailor than white sails on a sunny day. Tanbark sails are also more visible in fog, hide dirt and rust, and make a ship easily recognizable. Many historic ships which traditionally sailed with tanbark sails opt to maintain tradition with modern tanbark sails and present a truly striking image of sailing's mystique.

Sea Bags Heritage Tanbark Market Tote on model

Heritage Tanbark Market Tote

The Sea Bags Heritage Collection brings together the rich history of sailing, sail making, and coastal life. Handcrafted from pedigreed sails of historic schooners and sailing yachts, each bag is limited in quantity and features unique trims and rare, upcycled sail cloth. Our recent acquisition is no different. We rarely get the chance to work with tanbark sails, so when we came into possession of a magnificent chocolate brown tanbark sail, we knew it deserved a place in our Heritage Collection. We used every part of the sail and managed to cut 46 panels, each unique with its own original patterns and stitching. We chose the Market Tote silhouette for its practicality and attractive profile, honoring the tanbark reputation. Combining authentic tanbark sailcloth with leather and brass accents, and black canvas pockets inside and out, it's a first of its kind design at Sea Bags. And only 46 of the Heritage Tanbark Market Totes were made, each individually numbered and certified for authenticity. Get yours today and own a piece of maritime history.

Learn more about our prior heritage launches


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