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Woven vs Laminated vs Membrane cloth, what’s the difference?

Material Construction Woven vs Laminate v Membrane

For centuries, organic materials like cotton, wool, and hemp propelled ships across oceans into new territories. These traditional sails remained largely the same until the 20th century when sailmakers began experimenting with woven synthetic materials like Dacron that proved to outlast and out-perform the textiles of old. Today, sails have taken another gigantic leap ahead with the advent of ultra-low stretch materials like carbon fiber being used for high performance applications.  In this article, we’ll cover the three main categories of sail material used in the modern day.

Woven

Woven sails may be the oldest type of sailcloth, but it is still the most widely used. With that being said, modern sails made from woven material have very little in common with the classics.  Woven sails are made like any other textile, using a loom to tightly pack individual fibers into a pliable sheet. Polyester threads are used to make Dacron which is by far the most well-known material, but other woven fabrics exist using anything from Dyneema to Vectran.

The popularity of woven sailcloth is attributed to its durability and low cost. Woven sails receive high marks for holding up to the general wear and tear of sailing such as chafing, luffing, and exposure to the sun. With such a variety of different woven materials each has its strengths and weaknesses in certain applications. For instance, Dimension Polyant’s Hydranet incorporated Dyneema fibers into its weave to make an extra sturdy fabric that is perfect for offshore cruising. However, the stiff, heavy material will not perform well in light air conditions as well as a cloth purpose-built for light air.

While adding Dyneema or Vectran to woven material may bump up the cost slightly, woven Dacron is still relatively cheap. The simple nature of the material and capacity for mass production keeps Dacron sails at the forefront of budget-friendly sail options.

While woven cloth accounts for the bulk of all cruising sails, you may notice this isn’t the case in most racing classes. The reason for that being the enemy of any woven cloth—stretch. It’s inevitable that a sail made from woven material will stretch over time. Another inherent flaw of woven material is the lack of strength on the bias (45 degrees to the angle of the weave) causing distortion when off-axis loads are applied, such as in a sail that is reefed.

Given the low price point and proven durability over centuries of testing, woven sailcloth remains the go-to option for sailor all across the globe.

Sailboat with Dacron sail built by Evolution Sails

Paneled laminates

The first major development in sailcloth technology since Dacron came about with the introduction of paneled laminates, which are built by stacking layers of material rather than weaving together individual stands. Most laminate materials utilize a load bearing fiber as the central layer for added strength. These fibers can be made of anything from polyester to carbon fiber, including Dyneema and Vectran.  Laminate materials typically have two layers of mylar lining the outside, but they can also be covered in  taffeta for added durability.

The main advantage to paneled laminate sails is the ability to place the fibers in the material however the manufacturer sees fit.  The fibers are not limited to what is possible with a weave pattern as with Dacron. As a result, cloth manufacturers can align the fibers with the anticipated loads based on the panel layout of a given sail.  Combining different load bearing fibers, layouts, and outer skin, the cloth manufacturer can create a wider variety of sail attributes, bringing the customization process to a whole new level.

As can be expected with a higher level of customization, panel laminates come with increased cost relative to woven material. Using load bearing fibers made from carbon fiber or other first-rate materials will further increase the cost up front. With that being said, a sail made from even a low-end paneled laminate material can still hold its shape longer than that of a mid-range woven Dacron which can result in savings over the long-run.  

Beneteau 305 with triradial sails

Membrane Sails

The latest and greatest sail material has evolved to a point where it has less to do with the material itself and more to do with the construction technique used. It goes by different names but for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to call “Membrane.”  Membranes are similar to paneled laminates in that they are a combination of load bearing fibers on the inside and mylar or taffeta on the outside. However, they differ in that the material for each membrane sail is custom made for that specific design rather than using an off-the-shelf material. The result is a highly optimized sail that has fibers in all the right places and none where they are deemed unnecessary, leading this modern construction technique to be the new standard for all high-performance sails on the market.

The advancement in customization and efficiency of material make membranes sails the strongest and highest performing of anything available today. The design process of membranes, including fiber layout, fiber content, and outer skins, allow sailmakers to fine-tune the sail for any boat and rig plan.  While the very first membranes were almost exclusively used by racers, recent improvements in laminating techniques and skin options have allowed more cruising boats to take advantage of the performance of membrane sails. With corner reinforcements, batten pockets, reef points, and even stanchion patches now being added internally to membrane sails, these accessories weigh less and are more durable, benefiting both racers and cruisers alike.

Just a few years ago, membrane sails were significantly more expensive than anything else on the market, leading to only the most dedicated racers to bite the bullet in the name of speed and performance. However, developments in building techniques have brought prices of membranes more in line with higher end paneled laminates. Much like the early Mylar laminated sails, membranes suffered a poor reception from many sailors due to durability issues as a result of the sins committed by hasty sailmakers. Today, however, a high level of customization and a quality sailmaker will design and build the perfect sail for you.  All-out performance sails are built light and fast, while offshore sails are more substantial and made to handle the abuses of open water with ease. 

As a proud partner of the Evolution Sails family, our membrane construction facility located in Auckland, New Zealand creates immaculately laminated sails built for every use. With designs ranging from E-Tech (Club), to Element (Grand Prix), to Expedition (Cruising), Evolution membranes make no compromises and are guaranteed to perform wherever your adventures may take you.

Expedition Membrane racing and cruising sails

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