How The First Waterproof Jackets Kept Us Dry

How The First Waterproof Jackets Kept Us Dry

Long before Gore-Tex or Patagonia’s H2No, people kept the rain off their backs with the most obvious of repellants: oil. It was a trick gleaned from mariners in the 1500s. Sails slicked with grease and oil better navigated nasty storms by beating back water. Between then and now, fabric impregnated with various oils and then waxes have become time-tested water proofers.

The first performance fabric had its official debut in the late 1700s when British clipper ships were fashioned with Scottish-made oiled flax sails. The maker, Francis Webster Ltd, ground down linseed to a paste and spread the oil over flax cloth, waterproofing the wind catchers. It worked out all right for a while, but the flax was heavy and it slowed the ships down – which sucks when you’re in the middle of trying to take over the world. A familiar fabric stepped up with a solution. Lighter-weight cotton – waterproofed with flax oil – made ships faster.

But there were other solutions, too. A Complete Dictionary of Dry goods from 1892 suggested using waxed threads to pull muskrat, beaver, or otter furs into coats to keep the elements out. And in the aviation industry, wax was making a splash that would soon drip over into the realm of outerwear. The Wright brothers, influenced by Otto Lilienthal’s flying experiments, stretched waxed cotton over a wood or wicker frame to keep their planes flying in foul weather.

Waxed cotton was utilitarian, durable and easily maintained. It made its way into jackets very quickly, but – equally quickly – ran into a small problem. It was not a fabric of style. Cold weather would turn waxed garments into rigid water shields. And worse, waxed cotton jackets had a nasty habit of turning yellow.

The stuff wasn’t tough enough on its own for fishermen either (it tended to rot at sea), who started donning shells covered with cuprammonium – a mixture of copper and ammonia. The copper turned the fabric to its colour, and, as you can imagine, the whole thing wasn’t very environmentally friendly. Between its tendency to stiffen in the winter and rot on the ocean, waxed cotton needed a technological advance to be a legitimate all-weather wearable.

Three companies, Barbour being one of them, set out to make a waterproofed coat that people would actually want to wear. It took two years of development, but they found a blend that was jacket material. Paraffin wax-coated cotton was breathable as well as water resistant, and it didn’t turn yellow. UK manufacturers first sent the jackets to New Zealand for testing. After Kiwi approval, the fabric went big. Farmers and gamekeepers were early adopters, and Steve McQueen took to wearing waxed cotton motorcycle suits in the 1960s.

And people are still wearing the stuff today. It may not have a high-tech punny name (thank god), but stories of 50 year-old Barbour jackets that still keep their owners dry are common. Who knows, maybe GoreTex will enjoy the same longevity, but for now, waxed cotton is the still-tough silverback in the technical fabric troop.

Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Image courtesy Barbour.