How Sailcloth is Made

So many fiber choices leave fabric engineers with the interesting and complex task of deciding how to use them. Indeed, the possibilities are endless. Not only can engineers group different amounts of the same fiber in a fabric, they can group different amounts of different fibers in the same fabric, orient them in any number of ways and then adhere them to a substrate that is baked in an oven, all in an effort to end up with a superior sailcloth. It's a sort of one-plus-one-equals-five scenario. Not surprisingly, the process can become extremely complicated, and in fact this is one of those areas in which sailmaking departs from the fixed limitations of science and delves into the area of art. It's why the subject is so fascinating. In this chapter we will look at how the fibers discussed in Chapter 2 are used to their best advantage and how some fabrics are designed for certain specific applications. In a later chapter we will look at new technologies like molded sails and tape-reinforced sails, but this chapter is specifically about creating fabrics from which panels are cut and sails are made. By understanding these different techniques you will begin to understand which fibers, and by extension, which fabrics best suit your needs.

This chapter is divided into three sections:

1. Woven fabrics - those fabrics that are manufactured on a loom in a conventional manner.

2. Laminated fabrics - fabrics that comprise two or more layers glued together; these fabrics can have a woven substrate, but they do not rely solely on the woven part for stability and stretch-resistance.

3. Cuben Fiber - a whole new way of creating fabric in which layers of film and fiber are subjected to heat and pressure in an autoclave.

These are three quite different ways of creating fabric, but the end goal is the same: to create sailcloth that is light, cost effective, and stretch-resistant, both along its principal axes and on the bias. Like the sailmaking business in general there are two main ingredients that account for the price of fabric: labor and raw materials. The least labor-intensive way of making sailcloth is to weave and finish it, followed by lamination, with Cuben Fiber being the most labor intensive. In terms of the base fibers, polyester, from which sails are woven, is much cheaper than Spectra or one of the other "exotics." Therefore a woven Dacron sail will be the least expensive. Your aim when thinking about new sails is to choose a fabric that suits your needs perfectly. You don't want to pay extra for something you don't need, but by the same token, you don't want to choose a fabric that is not up to the task for the sake of saving a few dollars. By reading and understanding the different manufacturing techniques you will be much better informed when it comes time to make your own purchase.

"... the end goal is the same: to create sailcloth that is light, cost effective, and stretch-resistant, both along its principal axes and on the bias."

A view of North's NorDac fabric magnified to show the tightness of the weave.

Figure 3.1

The warp refers to the yarns running the length of the fabric while the fill refers to the yarns running across the fabric.

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