Composites fabricated by VARTM technology with the use of single-ply non-crimp 3D orthogonal woven preforms 3WEAVE (R) find fast growing research interest and industrial applications. It is now well understood and appreciated that this type of advanced composites provides efficient delamination suppression, enhanced damage tolerance, and superior impact, ballistic and blast performance characteristics over 2D fabric laminates. At the same time, this type of composites, having practically straight in-plane fibers, show significantly better in-plane stiffness and strength properties than respective properties of a "conventional" type 3D interlock weave composites. One primarily important question, which has not been addressed yet, is how the in-plane elastic and strength characteristics of this type of composites compare with respective in-plane properties of "equivalent" laminates made of 2D woven fabrics. This 2-part paper presents a comprehensive experimental study of the comparison of in-plane tensile properties of two single-ply non-crimp 3D orthogonal weave E-glass fiber composites on one side and a laminate reinforced with four plies of plain weave E-glass fabric on the other. Results obtained from mechanical testing are supplemented by acoustic emission data providing damage initiation thresholds, progressive cracks observation, full-field surface strain mapping and cracks observation on micrographs. The obtained results demonstrate that the studied 3D non-crimp orthogonal woven composites have considerably higher in-plane ultimate failure stresses and strains, as well as damage initiation strain thresholds than their 2D woven laminated composite counterpart. Part I presents the description of materials used, experimental techniques applied, principal results and their mutual comparisons for the three tested composites. Part 2 describes in detail the experimentally observed effects and trends with the main focus on the progressive damage: detailed results of AE registration, full-field strain measurements and progressive damage observations, highlighting peculiarities of local damage patterns and explaining the succession of local damage events, which leads to the differences in strength values between 2D and 3D composites. (C) 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.