Kite-making Materials

If you want to know what you can use to make kites, and what has been used in the past, look no further!


Traditionally and up until recent times, the sail has been made of fabric such as cotton or silk, or of paper. More recently, man-made materials have almost completely superseded these except in the East, where traditional kite making still thrives in many places.

Sails are now often made from ripstop nylon or polyester, which is a woven material coated on one or both sides with a thin plastic film. A small proportion of the threads, a few per inch in each direction, are thicker than the rest and have the effect of arresting any tear. The material was developed as a substitute for silk for parachutes, in which any rip, for example from a bullet hole, would be catastrophic if it propagated.

Other materials used are normal or high density polythene (including recycled supermarket bags) and mylar film, as sold as gift-wrap. which is a woven and bonded material made from high density polythene fibres, Tyvek is another modern material often used. (If you can remember 5.25" diskettes, they used to come in a storage sleeve which was often made out of Tyvek.) Details of it can be found on the DuPont web site. Traditional kites have been made from paper or silk. Whereas paper is still used, silk has been virtually completely replaced by ripstop, in the West at least.


Wood or bamboo was normally used for spars in the past. Wood, such as dowelling, is still often used and split bamboo is still used for fighter kites. But in high performance kites, fibreglass or carbon fibre is more usual. Carbon fibre gives enormous stiffness for a given weight; one of the first things you notice about it is that if you drop a piece on a hard surface, it rings like a piece of metal - something no plastic, or even fibreglass, would do.


Construction is normally by sewing except for paper, for which glue or sticky tape is used. Adhesives can be used with ripstop nylon and polyester, but you need specialist ones such as 3M9460 acrylic tape. By the time you've followed the special procedures require for it to be successful, this doesn't turn out to be an easy option for someone without a sewing machine. Nevertheless, good results are possible, as shown by this picture of Bob Neitzke's Golden Gate Bridge kite, constructed by this method.


One of the challenges of kite building is to make something which is visually highly appealing. Some kites, in particular cellular kites, are made out of a number of separate pieces stitched together, and so these lend themselves to a careful choice of colour scheme. Simpler kites can also be made using a patchwork technique for a similar effect, but if you're after putting pictures, motifs or lettering on your kite, you have to use other methods.

Painting kites is popular in some circles, and has been used for many years in the East to decorate traditional kites made with natural materials such as cotton or paper. Tyvek takes acrylic paints successfully, but ripstop nylon and polyester are harder. There are several options:

Many kite builders use a technique known as "appliqué". To take a simple example, suppose you wanted to decorate your kite with your initial. You would cut out the letter in a colour contrasting with the kite sail, and sew this to the back, making sure you sew all around the letter. You then turn it over and cut away the original sail just inside the line of stitching, exposing the letter. A complete picture or complex design can be built up using multiple colours. The technique is particularly effective when the light is behind the kite since unlike paint, much of the colour comes from transmitted light. Only a moderate amount of skill is required - with a little care, anyone should be able to achieve an acceptable result with a simple but effective design on their first attempt - and the time taken may not be any more than that needed to paint and cure several colours.

Flying Lines

Until fairly recently, the choice of material for flying lines was necessarily restricted to natural fibres. Nowadays, polyester or nylon lines are commonly used.

However, these are too elastic to allow the fine control needed by modern sports kites, for which high density polythene is used, under trade names Spectra and Dyneema. These are very strong for their weight, indeed, it is the same materials, woven into fabric, which are used for bullet-proof vests! A disadvantage is that they have a low melting point which can easily be exceeded if they are crossed with another flyer's nylon or polyester line. They also need to be sleeved with polyester or nylon where they are knotted otherwise the concentration of stress can cause them to fail at well below their rated strength.

Another area where special lines are used is in fighter kites. Control of these involves allowing the line to run through the hands and pulling it in, again by hand, into a pile at the flyer's feet. Normal flying line should never, ever be allowed to run through the hands as severe burns will result. Special waxed or glazed line is available for fighters which can be safely handled in this way.

Oriental fighter kites are flown in battles using line impregnated with ground glass or some other abrasive, the aim being to cut the opponent's line with your own. Needless to say, such lines are not controlled with bare hands!

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Copyright © 1999 Philip Le Riche
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