When you first bought your sailboat, part of what led you to it was its appeal. You’d like your boat to stand out even more on the water, which is why lately you’re thinking dying the boat’s sailcloth is a great idea. Is it possible to dye sailcloth or should you just replace the sails entirely?
If your sails are made of a polyblend such as polyester, then no, you can’t dye sailcloth, at least not long-term. The color will apply to the polyester initially, but since it’s not saturating into the fabric, it will wash right out after a few times if it gets wet.
In this article, we’ll talk more about sailcloth and what it is, including all the types of sailcloth. We’ll also elaborate on whether you can dye your boat sails if they’re Dacron. Keep reading!
What Is Sailcloth?
The sails throughout your boat are made of a material known as sailcloth, but that’s a general term. Sailcloth comprises many fabrics, and depending on which is used for your boat’s sails, you may or may not be able to dye the cloth.
Here’s an overview of the sailcloth materials used in the manufacturing of sailboats and other seaworthy vessels.
Although carbon fiber is usually a rigid material due to its plastic construction, it has a degree of flexibility that makes it a solid material for boat sails. Some variants of carbon fiber are less flexible; these are known as non-stretch. The others are more malleable, although to varying degrees.
Carbon fiber sailcloth is also very UV-resistant, so whatever color you choose shouldn’t fade from hours upon hours of sun exposure.
A liquid crystal polymer manufactured by a company called Ticona, Vectran sailcloth is also made with polyester. It’s flexible and doesn’t lose strength if it bends or moves. Also, the gold hue, which is natural in Vectran, is appealing to many a sailor.
Vectran sailcloth has UV endurance features, but only for 400 hours. Its tensile strength and chemical abrasion abilities are noteworthy, and it only creeps slightly if your sailboat load is at 30 percent.
Next is Zylon, which is called p-phenylene-2, 6-benzobisoxazole in full. Founded in Japan, Zylon sailcloth includes gold fibers that can stretch even when folded often. The fibers also resist abrasive damage and chemical damage, they creep less, and their thermal stability is higher than other types of sailcloth.
That said, visible light and UV light can severely impact the quality of Zylon sailcloth, degrading it sooner than later. This sailcloth does feel nice though due to its softness and flexibility.
More common for spinnakers than other types of sails, nylon sailcloth is quite flexible, resistant to abrasions, and its tensile strength is great. If strong winds blow through, nylon sails might stretch too far, hence why sailors don’t use this sailcloth for any upwind sails.
Further, nylon sailcloth cannot handle chemical damage, especially when compared to polyester. UV light is damaging to nylon much like it is Zylon.
Texas-based Fortune 500 the Celanese Corporation created Certran, a type of sailcloth that’s made primarily of polyethylene. It creeps more than some other sailcloth types, but it’s less likely to wear from UV exposure. Also, flex fatigue is not an issue with Certran sailcloth.
DSM in the Netherlands is the founder of Dyneema, a sailcloth mostly used by European manufacturers. You have your pick among yarn sizes for this sailcloth, giving Dyneema some versatility.
If you’re interested in Dyneema sailcloth, the DSK78 variety resists UV light and abrasion while having an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. It also creeps less than previous Dyneema sailcloth products.
The building technologies and aerospace company Honeywell created Spectra, which is ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene or UHMWPE. Compared to Certran, Spectra has a higher modulus rating. Dyneema is on par with Spectra and again features more yarn size options.
Spectra’s UV resistance is some of the best you’ll find in sailcloth, as is its flex strength, breaking strength, and modulus numbers. Carbon fiber has slightly better modulus numbers, but it’s the only sailcloth material that does.
Creep is a big issue with Spectra, meaning you can’t sustain a load for too long without straining the fabric. The longer you use your Spectra sails, the more you might notice they become saggy and loose.
For that reason, most sailors only rely on Spectra sailcloth for spinnaker sails or opt to get new Spectra mainsails and headsails often.
An aramid sailcloth brand based in the Netherlands from a company called Teijin, Twaron comes in two varieties: Twaron SM and Twaron HM or high modulus. The Twaran HM sailcloth is especially noteworthy, as it has great UV resistance and tensile strength, even more so than Kevlar 49.
This sailcloth comes in a natural gold hue, and it’s quite a vivid one at that.
Technora is an aramid sailcloth that’s also from Teijin but produced in Japan. This sailcloth is best as X-ply bias support for laminate sailcloth, as it can’t handle as much flex fatigue, nor does it have a lot of modulus strength. Technora stands out because the sails are black, but they’re dyed that way from their natural gold color.
Few types of sailcloth exceed the capabilities of Kevlar. DuPont first manufactured these sails in 1971, and they’ve been favored for racing sails ever since, especially Type 49 and Type 29.
Type 29 Kevlar reduces flex loss, but it has a lower modulus strength compared to Type 49, which is 50 percent stronger. Over the years, DuPont has also created Kevlar Type 129, Type 149, and Type 159 sailcloth, but these aren’t as common in the world of sailing.
Kevlar can lose strength if the sails fold or flex too often, especially if conditions are sunny.
Polyethylene naphthalate or PEN became popularized by Honeywell’s PEN sailcloth called Pentex. This polyester-based sailcloth can stretch up to 40 percent further than similar materials, which already gives it two times the flexibility of Kevlar 29 sailcloth.
Pentex or PEN sailcloth is woven less tightly due to its reduced shrinkage, so Honeywell uses resin in Pentex to make up for it. However, the addition of the resin can accelerate degradation of the sailcloth quality.
Polyester sailcloth uses polyethylene terephthalate or PET material. The best-known polyester sailcloth is made by Dacron. For racing, PET sailcloth lacks in some areas, but everyday sailors love this sailcloth since it’s generally pretty durable and doesn’t cost much. Also, if the sails get wet, PET dries a lot faster than other sailcloth. Further, PET sailcloth is good at resisting UV damage and abrasiveness.
Can You Dye Sailcloth?
Now that you understand more about sailcloth, let’s go back to your original question. Can you dye it?
Since most boat sailcloth is made of polyester or a polyblend, the answer is no. Your color of choice would adhere to the synthetic sailcloth initially, but not to the point of saturation. That’s an important distinction, as when a dye saturates, it gets deep into the fibers of the sailcloth and remains longer.
Instead, dyeing polyblend only coats the sailcloth fibers. This is sufficient for the time being, but when your sailcloth inevitably gets wet, since the polyblend didn’t saturate into the sailcloth, your sails will begin losing color. Before you know it, a few times out on the water and all the color is gone from your sailcloth.
You can dye pure cotton sailcloth, but considering this material isn’t used for boat sails, that’s kind of a moot point.
Can You Dye Dacron Sails?
What if you bought pure white Dacron sails in the hope of dyeing these? As we discussed in an earlier section, Dacron is PET sailcloth, aka polyethylene terephthalate, which is a type of polyester. Thus, dying it won’t create lasting results, only short-term ones until the dye eventually washes out.
If your sailcloth is by Diolen, Trevira, Tetoron, or Terylene, these companies also make PET sailcloth that’s ineligible to be dyed.
What Are Your Options for Adding Color to Your Boat Sails?
It’s a little disappointing to hear that you can’t dye your sailcloth, as you were really looking forward to improving the overall look of your sailboat. Does this mean you have no way of imparting color to the sails?
Not necessarily. Here are three alternate methods you might consider instead.
According to the SailboatOwners forum, sailors have had good results painting their Dacron sails instead of dying them. One poster said that Dacron’s brand of polyester sailcloth can be stained using oil-based paints.
How long the paint might stick to the sailcloth is anyone’s guess, but you’re better off painting than dyeing when it comes to Dacron.
You can also contact a professional dyeing service and see what they can do with your sails. Even the pros can’t make dye saturate into certain types of sailcloth, but they might be able to recommend you similar materials that can be colored.
Buying New Sails
This 2015 article from sailing resource Scuttlebutt Sailing News covers the history of sail colors from the 1960s to today. In short, color has become more and more common in sails over the decades, with a lot of variety available today.
The article mentions one sailcloth manufacturer called Hobie that you might want to look into. Some of their sails are a little expensive, but they’re definitely colorful!
You can’t dye most sailcloth because the polyester cannot absorb the color sufficiently enough for it to last. Painting sailcloth instead might work, especially Dacron. All the best with sailing.