If you have been wondering what it's all about, why there are those differently colored sails and funky panel layouts, stay tuned to this slot for the next few months while we untangle the weave and present you with a comprehensive look at fabrics, panel layouts, sails, and sail trim. By way of this series of articles devised to educate you, the cruising sailor, we hope to enable you to make better, more informed choices the next time you are out shopping for sails.
It all starts with a yarn, or more to the point, thousands of yarns. Space-age fibers, some with names longer than the length of your boat, form the basis of all fabrics, and it's in their make-up and lay-up that sailcloth is created.
When you see new names like VectranTM and CertranTM, PBO and PEN listed as fabric options for your sails, it's easy to be intimidated and long for the dull days of DacronTM. Just remember that all these yarns were created for industrial and defense use and that the sailing industry became a subsequent beneficiary of all this technology. Sailmakers and fabric makers would never have had the resources to "invent" a fiber that everyone wants, despite the fact that it's prohibitively expensive, doesn't last long, and will soon have to be replaced. It's an industry's dream come true.
In an industry that turns out MylarTM marvels and DacronTM wonders, it's easy to see where you can get confused about what's best for your boat. Let's start at the very beginning and look at how fabric is created.
A great sailcloth is the sum of its parts. In woven fabrics like Dacron and NylonTM, the components are the yarn, the weave, and the finish. In a laminate, it's the yarn, the film, the adhesive, and the amount of pressure brought to bear on the fabric during lamination that hold it all together. The most important component is still the yarn, and since this is the area where the most development and change occurs, let's look at the available yarns and their distinctive features.
Let's take VectranTM for an example. This fine filament was created for the defense industry. The military-industrial complex was looking for a fiber that could be used to tow listening devices behind submarines. The listening device was paid out behind the sub to an exact distance. The noise of the sub's engines were then tuned out so that the device could listen for other noises. The length of the tow had to remain constant, and the fiber had to withstand adverse conditions. VectranTM was the result, and it seemed to be an ideal fiber for use in sailcloth, until its creators brought it to the surface and found that sunlight was its greatest enemy.
PentexTM was developed for the tire and mechanical rubber markets and has several features that make it well suited for sailcloth applications. Aside from being rugged, it has two and a half times the modulus, or stretch resistance, of regular DacronTM. This translates into two and a half times less stretch for cruising sails of equal weight. PentexTM is best used in a laminate form, and has been used with equal success in one-design jibs and mega-yacht mainsails.
|"The most successful fibers available for sailmaking have been the aramids, the most recognizable of which is Kevlar."|
Fortunately the threads are only part of the equation, and some of their weakness can be masked by the clever use of UV inhibitors. You can trust sailcloth makers not to give up on a wonder fiber, and instead figure out how to incorporate the yarns into the overall makeup of the cloth while minimizing the fragility of the fiber. One of the most effective ways to do this is to sandwich the yarns between UV protective film, which brings us to the second most important component of sailcloth—the film.
With new wonder yarns, super adhesives, and high-tech treated films, cloth manufacturers have the scientific side of sailcloth fairly well sorted out. It's now up to their artistic and creative engineering abilities to combine all these components into a sailcloth from which sailmakers can fashion a sail.
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