What is Waxed Cotton?

Waxed cotton is a fabric infused with paraffin or bee’s wax in order to make the cloth water-resistant. It is most commonly used in waxed cotton jackets and coats , though it is also used in water-repellent hats , bags, and even shoes. If you’ve ever been caught in a deluge wearing a 100-percent cotton jacket, you know the material on its own is anything but waterproof. Instead, your coat will thirstily absorb as much water as it can and likely soak you to the bone. Add a little wax to the mix, however, and your jacket will repel water handsomely.

What Are the Origins of Waxed Cotton?

Waxed cotton as we know it today goes back to 15th-century mariners who applied fish oil and grease to sailcloth because it made the sails catch wind more efficiently whilst preventing them from becoming saturated with water and weighing the vessels down. Enterprising sailors began using remnants cut from this treated sailcloth as waterproof slickers to keep them dry on the high seas during stormy weather.

By the 19th century, linseed oil replaced fish oil — along with its unwelcome odour — in the production of “oilcloth” for sails and protective clothing for sailors. Though it had a more pleasing scent, “oilcloth” was slow to dry, tended to turn yellow, became stiff and cracked in the cold, and was slightly toxic.

In the early 1930s, paraffin wax emerged as an attractive alternative to linseed oil when the concurrent efforts of three fabric production companies perfected the treatment process. When cotton canvas was suffused with wax, the result was a robust material that was water-resistant, supple, lightweight and breathable, protected against the elements, and maintained a handsome patina over time. It also proved to be safe and non-yellowing.

J. Barbour & Sons was among the earliest adopters and purveyors of waxed cotton jackets and coats. Soon enough, waxed cotton outerwear caught on among people whose work or play subjected them to the elements, from farmers to gamekeepers to wingshooters. Barbour’s waxed cotton motorcycle jackets became the uniform of choice for cycling enthusiasts, including American actor Steve McQueen, who helped give the look cool cachet in the 1960s.

Modern Waxed Cotton

With 20th century innovations in waterproof textiles, including the proliferation of lightweight nylons, the popularity of waxed cotton jackets waned. After all, waxed cotton coats require yearly re-waxing, whilst more modern materials require little maintenance. Yet waxed cotton jackets didn’t go the way of the dodo. Indeed, they’ve rebounded in popularity.

Why? Because waxed cotton jackets are thoroughly time-tested and refined—in construction, look, and feel. This is a jacket that will accompany you on your adventures for years to come. If you re-wax your jacket yourself , the hands-on experience will be a trip down memory lane, reminding you of time spent exploring the highlands on a shooting excursion or of travels abroad.

Truly, few fabrics exceed the appealing feel and patina of waxed cotton. During walks along peaceful country lanes or down bustling city streets, a waxed cotton jacket is unmatched in function and fashion. If you wear it, there is little doubt you’ll wear it well.


One thought on “What is Waxed Cotton?

  1. Mark johnston

    I see Orvis sells a waxed “stretch” cotton moto jacket, what is the difference between that and a traditional waxed cotton jacket, does it look and wear like the original stuff? Will it acquire a patina as it ages?


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