The Background of Wax

Beginning in 1894, Barbour has a remarkably long and devoted history with waxed cotton. One may argue that, in the modern world, our relationship with this fabric for clothes is the oldest and most enduring.

When John Barbour established J. Barbour & Sons in 1894, South Shields in the North East of England was a bustling port. The need for garments that would keep all the sailors, fisherman, river, dock, and shipyard employees dry was therefore high, according to Barbour. Oilskin was the word used to describe this heavy waterproof fabric at the time, when Barbour created a line of apparel under the Beacon Brand name. Contrary to common misconception, we did not invent Oilskins, and even the original inventor of Barbour was not the first to weatherproof fabric with oils and waxes.

The Seamen...

It was first done in the 15th century to impregnate fabric to make it waterproof. When at sea, sailors would oil and grease their thick sailcloth and homemade weatherproof capes to ward off the blustery winds and pouring rain. The fleet of British clippers at the time employed oiled flax sails produced by the Scottish sailmaker Francis Webster Ltd. in 1795. Linseed, a tiny seed, was produced as a by-product during the processing of flax. It was discovered that the linseed oil could be used to coat the flax sailcloth to make it weatherproof when these seeds were ground into a paste. This process resulted in a fabric that resembled wax cotton  material that we are familiar with today.
A fresh formula...
Over time, the weight of these bulky flax sails became a concern for ship designers; in order to outperform their rivals, the Clippers needed to be faster and lighter. As soon as it was realised that cotton was a perfect substitute for flax, waxed cotton sails were developed. The original Beacon Brand Oilskins that Barbour made back in 1894 were based on this traditional flax seed recipe, which was used to create this weatherproof cotton from the middle of the 19th century until the 1930s. 
Creating waxed cotton...

The fabric of the original Oilskins had issues, including stiffening up and turning a shade of yellow in extremely cold conditions. Consequently, a new generation of proofed cottons was produced in the 1930s. The newly developed paraffin impregnated cotton created a highly water resistant fabric that was softer than anything that came before it and made specifically for outerwear. This cotton was woven in Scotland by Webster, dyed there, transported to London for a cupro-ammonia treatment, waxed there, then sold and distributed in Scotland. For the first significant test, the extremely conservative Scottish corporation shipped the product to New Zealand, which is on the opposite side of the globe.
New Zealand had a moderate climate and was moist, but it was also far away, so any development issues could be solved without having an impact on a later launch in the domestic market. The waxed cotton, however, was a huge success in the New Zealand trials. The name given to it there, Japara, became the de facto fabric for rainwear, and it was registered as a trademark  by the Scottish Mill. 
When riding a motorcycle, use waxed cotton...
The applications for waxed cotton increased following the war. Country sports fans, gamekeepers, farmers, and motorcycle riders quickly adopted it. Among the pioneers was J Barbour & Sons. The consequence was the creation of the Barbour International motorbike suit. Trials riders loved the unusual International Suit, which was popularised by its slanted map pocket and was worn all over the world. Steve McQueen and the rest of the American team were all dressed in Barbour International Suits for the 1964 International Six Days Trial. Almost all of the British International teams wore our suits between 1936 and 1977, when Barbour decided to exit the motorcycle apparel business.
Wax cotton today...
Since the 1930s, there have been advancements and modifications made to the production and manufacturing of waxed fabrics. The material has been refined over the years, including around 2005 when the cupro-ammonia that gave paraffin wax its distinctive smell was removed, resulting in the distinctive wax cotton for which Barbour is now renowned. However, the waxed cotton that we use comes in a variety of forms, and each one performs rather differently in terms of appearance, feel, and functionality.

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