Introduction to sailcloth:
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
One of the most discussed variables we work with at East Coast Kit is, which cloth to use to build a sail? Elvstrom have over 300 fabric options and combinations so it’s no wonder it’s such a hot topic.
Firstly, in this guide I want to reassure you we won’t be going over 300 fabric options (no matter how much I enjoy talking about sails) I’m sure you don’t have time to read it. That said I hope this will give you a great starting point and food for thought when considering what might work for you.
Let’s start from the top, when talking about sails there are two main types, woven sails (traditionally some form of Dacron) and laminate sails (made up of multiple layers of fabric, film and fibres).
Woven sails are the bread and butter of the cruising world, that said they can work perfectly well for racing and are often the most durable option of any sail cloth. The relatively simple construction and use of one material (normally) makes them easier and more affordable to build. They’re also required for many racing classes where laminate sails are not permitted.
These sails are often cut in two ways, crosscut (below left) for a straightforward and durable sail or radial (below right) where the sailmaker can have more control over the overall shape of the sail as each panel can be adjusted to make the ideal profile while still having optimal durability.
Woven sails also include most downwind sails where stretch is less of a concern and the lighter weight nylon fabrics provide optimal per
formance and will fly and fill in all but the lightest of wind. The fabric also has a low friction water repellent coating both to aid with smooth manoeuvres and minimal water take up (keeping them light and easier to handle).
Almost all downwind sails now feature a radial cut. The main variant in downwind is the overall weight of the fabric which will be tailored for the sails intended use. From feather light fabric such as Superlight 40 for a sail that will set in extremely light wind to more durable fabric such as Maxlight 150 which is ideal for blue water (ultra-long distance) sailing.
Lightweight woven sails are also used in code 0 configurations as a cost-effective alternative to laminate for cruising where the additional power of a code sail extends the boats range in light winds.
Commonly associated with racing, laminate sails provide the ultimate in performance. The nature of the film and fibres used in these sails ensures minimal stretch vs a woven cloth which in turn ensures that once an optimal shape has been designed and built it will be retained for far longer. In addition, the use of f
ilm and advanced fibres (such as aramid/technora/carbon) results in a sail that is also lighter than a comparable woven sail for the same overall strength.
Much like woven sails the overall weight of the cloth needed will be decided by the application and size of the boat, but the important point is that laminate sails will always prioritise performance above all else.
Laminate sails are often constructed using a radial cut for the best control of shape however Elvstrom also offer a continuous fibre (membrane) construction called EPEX.
EPEX sails are truly state of the art. Built on a one-off machine at Elvstrom HQ the cloth is laminated in house and uses multiple continuous fibres which are custom printed onto the film in the direction of the load paths. The results are sails that are lighter, stronger and hold the best possible shape (even over conventional laminate).
EPEX is perfect for primary sails and is also used to construct high performance code sails.
The big question will always be what is right for your boat? That is ultimately down to the type of boat and sailing you will be doing. It’s also where we as sailmakers use our experience to suggest the best options.
That said here’s a suggested starting point for upwind sails:
The above is a guide only and you should always speak to your sailmaker before making any final decision.
If you would like to know more about the sailcloth we use or are interested in talking to us about new sails, feel free to contact us by phone or email or book an appointment on our services page.