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Born of the Sea - A History of Waxed Canvas

November 16, 2018

Born of the Sea - A History of Waxed Canvas

For you to truly appreciate the uniqueness waxed canvas as the material of choice in your wet weather bag, it helps to understand a bit of the history of the product. It’s not a modern material by any means in fact it’s double-dipped in a history of Maritime tradition, hard men of the sea and military conquest of the globe. To know how it came to be is what makes it special to me and it’s why owning one of my pieces is like maintaining a small part of that history for yourself.

Looking back in time to the 15th century and most sailing ships were powered by Flax Sails. Flax is the early term for Linen and it’s is one of man's earliest and oldest resources. We think of cotton as the most common fabric of the 20th century but before that it was flax all the way back to unrecorded history. Flax sails were heavy and broad weaved. In other words they had tiny gaps between the fibres what leaked air. So when the sails were full, they lacked complete efficiency.

Sailors soon began to realise that a wet Flax sail increased the wind capturing efficiency of the sail because the water swelled the fabric and the molecules closed the gaps between the fibres thus allowing it to hold more wind. However, as you can imagine it also made the sail heavier and vessel slower.

Linen with a wider weave

By the 15th century innovative seafarers were realising that applying oils such as fish oils and linseed oil created the same membrane as water but made the sails water resistant, lighter and faster.

Did you know that linseed oil comes from Flax plants? So the “Lin” in “linseed” is a reference to linen.

Soon we see Mariners using offcuts of old sails to make wet weather gear such as hats and capes. Linseed became the most prominently used substance to treat linen sails and wet weather gear but over time its properties broke down causing it to stiffen crack and go yellow. This is where the yellow colouring of Fisherman's wet weather gear originated.

Vintage maritime wet weather gear

By the late 1800’s, two things of significance happened. Cotton overtook linen as the fabric of choice in the international thread trade. And with the waning efficiency of linseed oil in the waterproofing of sails, millenaries in the British Isles began experimenting with applying wax to what was now dual layered cotton sails. Something truly innovative was discovered. The wax was lighter than linseed oil, didn’t stiffen as much in cold weather and didn’t deteriorate to the same extent. Waxed cotton canvas was born! Soon several British companies were competing with recipes for waxed cotton to provide sails and wet weather gear for the British Navy and competitive Tea Clippers.

During WW2 the innovative fabric was being used by the British to equip its soldiers with wet weather gear; some of the best in the world at that time.

Cotton sails were eventually replaced with synthetic materials throughout the 20th century but waxed cotton canvas has stuck around to become something of a novelty in the fabric industry.

As a side note here, I remember in the Australian Army in the 1990’s I was issued a Japara brand wet weather coat. I don't think they still issue these. They were very sought after pieces of kit and forever being nicked.

So there you have it a more definitive origin story of Waxed Cotton Canvas. 




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