Canvas was the first material used to make parachutes; throughout history parachutes have also been made of silk, nylon, Kevlar and Terylene fabrics. While canvas was the first material used, other materials, like nylon and Kevlar, have offered greater benefits, such as more reliable strength, flexibility and damage resistance.
Parachutes were originally invented to be used as emergency devices for airplane pilots. Since then, they have become much more commonly used for military and recreational purposes. Just as the function of parachutes has evolved over the years, so too has the materials used to make them.
Canvas was the first material used to make parachutes. Canvas is a heavy-duty, plain-woven fabric, making it a reliable option for parachute material. Canvas was soon largely replaced by silk, however, because silk is lighter, thinner and stronger than canvas. Silk is also fire-resistant, making it more safe. It is also easier to fold and pack.
During World War II, silk supplies diminished, and so nylon became a popular fabric for making parachutes. A cheaper material, nylon has many attributes. It is very lightweight, quick-drying and elastic and it can also resist wind, chemical damage, abrasion and mildew buildup. Nylon is specially woven for parachutes, where extra thick squares in its weaving prevent tears from getting bigger. Nylon is also used to make parachute harnesses, reinforcing tape and suspension lines.
Kevlar is another material used to make parachutes. An extremely strong synthetic fabric, Kevlar is heat and flame-resistant and can maintain its tensile strength even after being stored for long periods of time. Terylene, a type of polyester fabric used for making parachutes, is similarly strong and heat resistant.