What You Don't Know About Skydiving Canopy Fabric

The Stuff Wings Are Made Of

The author flies her beloved Pulse over Slavnica, Slovakia.
The author flies her beloved Pulse over Slavnica, Slovakia. Image Courtesy Joel Strickland (varialfreefly.com)

Nylon: it’s so much more than pretty. (...and good golly, it’s pretty.) It's the stuff that saves our lives, over and over and over -- which makes it pretty magical, in my book.

Where most skydivers think of their canopy fabric along simple lines – performance, hardiness, fade resistance and packability – the considerations for a manufacturer and designer are immensely technical. For a fabric to be used as parachute canopy, it must possess all the basic qualities of a good cloth while meeting rigid tolerances for strength, weight and air porosity.

When you’re buying a new canopy (whether it’s fresh from the manufacturer or new-to-you), it’s especially important to understand the benefits and issues with each fabric type.

Here’s the skinny on skydiving canopy fabric: how it’s made, the benefits of each, and the tricky little problems to watch out for.

How Parachute Fabric is Made

Parachute canopies – once made of canvas (and a lot of wishful thinking) – are now built of pretty miraculous stuff.

Modern canopy material is woven from high-tensile nylon multifilament yarn. One strand of this yarn consists of a thread made up of ten parallel fibers. The result is a lot more rugged than the original canvas.

The fabric created from this thread gets its unique checkerboard weave pattern from its “ripstop” construction. As the fabric is woven, thicker, stronger reinforcement threads are integrated into the fabric at regular intervals. This ripstop weave bumps the fabric’s strength-to-weight ratio and, as the name implies, manages the spread of small tears.

After weaving, the nylon is dyed and “calendared” (a finishing process that uses heat and a pressure roller to set the fabric). Then, depending on the type of fabric being created, it may or may not be impregnated with fluorocarbons to block even more airflow.

When all is said and done, it takes a manufacturer about 80 yards of 48” wide nylon to build a 220-square-foot canopy.

(That’s the length of a regulation youth football field.) Smaller canopies use less, of course, but the total fabric requirement is still startlingly high, even for a dinky little skydoily.

All About F-111

The first fabric specially designed for ram-air canopies, DuPont’s trademarked “F-111,” was a revolution when it first arrived on the market. It was a light, thin and strong ripstop nylon with record-breaking low permeability in balance with its other characteristics. It resisted abrasion, environmental damage and other canopy-eating bugaboos much better than the other fabrics that were available at the time. Put simply: It really changed the game.

Since then, the game has changed. DuPont stopped manufacturing F-111 years ago. Most modern skydivers have never actually jumped a canopy made from it. That said the fabric's distinctive name stuck.

Now, people use the term “F-111” to refer to pretty much any skydiving canopy fabric that isn’t zero-porosity. Zero Porosity (known colloquially as "ZP") has come to dominate the sport canopy market. Despite its immense market advantage in the sport-skydiving world, some skydiving training schools still prefer the docile flight characteristics -- and softer openings -- of the F-111 fabric type for student use.

Continued In Part 2 >>

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O'Neil, Annette. "What You Don't Know About Skydiving Canopy Fabric." ThoughtCo, Jan. 18, 2016, thoughtco.com/dont-know-about-skydiving-canopy-fabric-1240511. O'Neil, Annette. (2016, January 18). What You Don't Know About Skydiving Canopy Fabric. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dont-know-about-skydiving-canopy-fabric-1240511 O'Neil, Annette. "What You Don't Know About Skydiving Canopy Fabric." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dont-know-about-skydiving-canopy-fabric-1240511 (accessed November 19, 2017).