I love waxed cotton canvas. I have for years. There's a natural appeal that it holds for me. Here are 5 reasons I think it's far more interesting than you realise.
I love the history of things and I am especially fascinated by the path certain commodities take to get to where they are today. The story of Waxed Fabric goes back hundreds of years and I think in some ways that's enough of a reason to respect the stuff. It has a back story and authenticity to it. In other words you are owning something traditional and from a time before plastics and toxic chemicals.
When sailing was at its peak in the 15th century mariners used Flax (now known as linen) sails to power their boats. The fibres were broadly weaved and lacked efficiency in holding the wind but mariners noticed that this was not the case when the sails were wet. The problem with wet sails was that they were 3 times heavier and the added weight slowed the vessels down.
Seamen from this time began experimenting with applying fish oils and eventually linseed oil to the sails to create a protective membrane between the fibres which has the added effect of keeping the water off. Linseed had its disadvantage and eventually was replaced by wax and Flax was replaced by cotton.
Now that history was painfully brief (for me - maybe not for you 😜). So I have written a more comprehensive history for the nerds amongst us. So click here nerds!
There are cheaper, lighter and probably more effective fabrics out there from which excellent and practical bags are made. But they nearly all include either plastics (nylon, polyester) or chemicals (such as Aldehyde and chromed leathers) and in most cases both. I'm not saying these products don't have a legitimate use or that they are not worth the impact on the environment, just that beeswaxed canvas is 100% natural, bio-degradable and has a minimal impact on the environment during its production.
Waxed canvas is coated in a solution of wax that reduces the gaps between the fibres of the cloth. I use the term reduces because it does not cover the fabric in a continuous film like nylon. This allows the material to continue "breathing".
Traditionally millenaries used a paraffin wax formula but as this is a petroleum product I prefer natural beeswax and plant oils. When water is exposed to Waxed Cotton, the natural waxes and oils cause water to bead (forces the molecules together into globules) and run off with gravity before it can exploit any remaining gaps. So don't think of it as an impenetrable film. It's important to acknowledge that while it provides water protection, the fabric is still able to allow finite amounts of air in and out of the product. This is especially important for heat and moisture dissipation.
In addition to all of this, items can be re-waterproofed by re-waxing as often as needed. The process of adding more wax maintains the product, protects the fibres and adds to the weathered character of the bag: all using natural substances like beeswax and plant oils.
For me our heavy beeswaxed canvas is an essential part of the Jack Stillman brand. It’s not the lightest or cheapest of water resistant fabrics and it’s certainly not easy to acquire compared with modern textiles.
Waxed canvas “feels” tough. And it is. The particular grade of cotton canvas I use is 16oz so it's between 3 and 4 times thicker than lighter materials in a similar price point. The fibres have been coated with a beeswax solution so it’s not a soft feeling cloth to begin with. In fact if you scratch it with your finger nail, it will leave welts in the fabric. These are easily rubbed out but as your bag gets used and abused these tell-tale signs of life actually add a value to the item.
The nature of the heavier canvas also means that, while it's more resistant to damage than much lighter materials, it's easily patched, repaired and re-waterproofed than its modern competition.
As you use it more and more through sun, rain and snow and re-wax it over time the outer surface begins to absorb more scratches and stains. Parts go smooth and darker. Others get slightly shiny. The fabric begins to loosen a little and it takes on it’s own unique way of resting based on how you train it.
In the case of Jack Stillman bags, add to this the leather, that has been tanned according to traditions older than waxed sails; and brass, an ancient alloy that follows its own distinct path towards maturity and you have a bag that was built to patina better and better with time.
This combination of materials makes Jack Stillman bags a perfect choice for customers who want to choose one bag wisely and train it to become something distinctive to their personality. A bag imbued with the character of the journeys its been part of.