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Are shade sails waterproof?

This is one of the first questions we get asked by clients and the short answer is no, they usually only provide sun protection. This is typical of traditional shade sails like the ones pictured above.

However, not all sails are created equal! In this article you will discover the different types of structures and fabrics, and what makes them waterproof (or not). You will also find our recommendations for whether it’s best to upgrade to a waterproof fabric, or whether shade-only fabric will work well for your project.

The first thing we’ll look at is the difference between shade fabric and waterproof fabric.

Shade sails for playgrounds

Shade Fabric

Shade cloth is the most common type fabric used for shade structures, and it is designed specially to block UV and protect us from the sun. It has a woven mesh construction and breaks the fall of rain, however water can pass through this fabric, so when the rain is heavy it will drip through easily. The advantage of shade cloth is that it is an efficient, yet very effective, way to lower the ambient temperature of an area.
The polyester yarns are made from a UV-stabilised high density polyethylene to make sure they don’t break down under constant exposure to the sun.

Best used for: areas that need sun protection, but don’t need to be used in wet weather (obviously 😅). This could include spaces like playgrounds, sand pits, and outdoor classrooms.

Cost: Shade cloth is the most cost-effective permanent shade fabric available. This is when compared to waterproof fabrics like PVC and PTFE.


Waterproof Fabric

The waterproof fabrics used in fabric structures are PVC and PTFE. PVC fabric is made from a base scrim (a plain-woven fabric) of polyester, and coated on both sides with a PVC (synthetic resin) coating. Another alternative is PTFE which is a woven fiberglass material coated with a PTFE resin. These are commonly referred to as ‘membrane’ fabrics, as they provide a layer of protection from the elements.

Best used for: areas that need to be used in all weather – like walkways, sports courts, eating areas at schools, and bus stops.

Cost: Waterproof fabrics typically weigh anywhere from double to triple a shade fabric, and therefore transfer greater loads onto their supporting frames/steelwork. This typically results in a corresponding price jump.  This is both from the fabric cost, as well as the additional steelwork required to hold the fabric in tension.


So now the question is, should you upgrade to waterproof fabric?

This will depend on two main things:

  1. The type of area you are covering
    • As mentioned earlier in this article, shade fabric is perfect for areas that need protection from the sun. Upgrading to waterproof fabric is a good idea when you need to be using this space all the time, or if you live somewhere with a particularly wet climate.
  2. Your budget
    • Waterproof fabrics will almost always cost more upfront. Consider how else you may utilise the space if you are weighing up the additional funds required to construct a waterproof structure. If it gives you more use of your space, it may be the most effective return on investment in the long term.


Keep reading to learn more about the different types of fabric structures.

All these structures can be constructed with either shade mesh or waterproof fabric, but some are more often used for one or the other as discussed below.

You can click on any of the structures to learn more.

For smaller areas:

Shade Sails: The traditional fabric sails often seen over playgrounds and outdoor classrooms. Typically, these structures are built with shade cloth however they can support waterproof fabrics if designed correctly.

Star Structures: Umbrella style permanent structures with a centre post – perfect for sand pits and outdoor eating areas. From experience these work well in both shade fabric and waterproof fabric.





Permanent shade structure for sports courts

For larger areas:

Barrel Vault Structures: Large span fabric curved structures, usually made with waterproof PVC fabric, perfect for multipurpose areas, sports courts, and other large-scale applications.

Hip and Ridge Structures: ‘Roof shaped’ fabric structures, usually made with Shade-only fabric, great for big areas like sports courts and multi-purpose spaces.




Other names for waterproof fabric structures:

As you research these types of structures, you may come across terms like ‘tensile membrane structure’ or ‘shade and membrane structure’. Both names refer to structures that comprise of a steel framework covered with a highly tensioned fabric, like the ones discussed above.

Thanks for reading!



Looking for commercial waterproof fabric structures?

Contact us to discuss your project. We work with you to take it from concept to completion, with our Consult, Design, Construct methodology. From single shade sails over sand pits through to barrel vaults over bowling greens we’ve seen a bit in the last two decades!