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Manly Fabric Part 2: Waxed Canvas

BY Michael Yarbrough Journal
BY Alex Via

There are times when, though we love nature, its embrace is more severe than we would like. This leaves us with two options: Give up or toughen up. Men choose the latter.

In the early days of sailing, seamen noted that their heavy canvas sails performed better when wet, yet the water-soaked cotton added additional weight making the maneuvering of the sails much harder. This makes sense, if we take a moment to think about it. The cotton canvas sails are tightly woven in order to catch the most wind possible, but there are still gaps between the fibers; gaps which are made smaller by the swelling of a wet fabric, thus catching more wind and performing better. Sailors, being the creative bunch of men they are, quickly found that coating their sails in seal or whale oil would have the same effect as a wet sail, while actually repelling water and keeping the sails much lighter. Scraps from worn sails were formed into cloaks, allowing those hearty men of the sea to weather the salty storms a bit drier. The oilskin fabric was born.

Coming ashore, especially in England and Scotland, wasn’t a guarantee of a dry life, and before long everyone was looking to keep dry in the same way as their saltier kin. The problem with oilskin is that the oil would eventually turn rancid. This wasn’t an issue for sailors as their sails were berated by the salty ocean sprays and had to be re-oiled (or reproofed) regularly. However, for the average Joe Jack this would not do, thus waxing cotton with a form of paraffin wax as a sealant was discovered. The drawback to waxing, however, was cracking and stiffness.

Today, waxed cotton or waxed canvas materials are a blend of oils and wax that weatherproofs while retaining the flexibility of an oiled fabric.

Men of the Royal Navy around 1930. Pictured is an oilskin suit known as the Destroyer Suit commonly worn by men of the coastal patrols.

From the Trenches to the Road

Waxed canvas jackets, hats, cloaks, tents, bags, and more became common place for the military, as should be expected, accompanying men in WWI and WWII as well as countless smaller ones. The manly material exploded into mainstream, particularly in America, as the love of Motorcycles grew. The waxed cotton jackets worn by motorcyclist were just the light and tough, weatherproof material a man needed for the open road.

Just as with the other manly fabrics we have discussed, once the combination of form and function has held over the years, we become endeared with its style and what it represents. Though waxed canvas never went out of style, there have been other modern fabrics which have competed for its place. Now, however, this manly fabric has made a resurgence as men long for the ways of old and to reconnect with the quality products made famous by our ancestors.

Final Thoughts

As men, we love to connect with nature. We respect the idea of battling nature with nature itself along with a healthy dose of our own ingenuity. We also respect simplicity. We enjoy an unpretentious and “every-man” solution for dealing with the challenges of life.

We also like staying dry. Might as well do so with style.

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