Waxed cotton is, as the name suggests, cotton impregnated with a paraffin based wax, woven into a cloth. Widely used from the mid-19th century to the mid-1950s, the product,which originated in the sailing industry in England and Scotland, became widely used by many for waterproofing. It is now replaced by more modern materials but is still used by the country sports community.
Early mariners noticed that wet sails were more efficient than dry sails, but due to their weight slowed the vessel down. From the 15th century, mariners applied fish oils and grease to their heavy sailcloth, out of the worn remnants of which they cut waterproof capes to keep themselves dry, the forerunner of the fisherman's slicker. The result was efficient sails in dry weather, lighter sails in wet weather, and drier sailors throughout.
From 1795, Arbroath-based sail maker Francis Webster Ltd had perfected the art of adding Linseed oil to flax sails, creating an oiled flax. Lighter than wet sailcloth, these started to be used by the Royal Navy and the early tea clippers. As the tea races increased in competition, the clipper designers and captains looked for weight reductions. As the clippers were often used to ship cotton from Egypt, experiments were started with this lighter material.
The first waxed cotton products of Egyptian cotton with linseed oil applied, started to appear from the mid-1850s. Tea clipper sails were made from strong two-ply yarns in both warp and weft, which provided lighter cloth with extra strength for the larger sails. The recipe for waxing each cloth remained unique to that cloth, but all cloths suffered the same problems: stiffness in the cold; and a tendency to turn a shade of yellow towards that of pure linseed oil, creating the early yellow of fisherman's clothing.
In the mid-1920s, three companies co-operated to create paraffin-impregnated cotton, which produced a highly water resistant cloth, breathable, but without the stiffness in the cold or yellowing with age. Woven by Webster's, it was taken to Lancashire for dyeing (black or olive green), and then to London for cupro–ammonia treatment. The cloth was then returned to Lancashire for waxing, and then back to Webster's for storage, sales and distribution.
Webster's were cautious about disrupting their home market, and so sent the new product to another part of the British Empire with similar climatic conditions and a love of sailing for testing: New Zealand. Given the local name Japara, as the material proved a weather and sales success, it was adopted as the trademark by Webster's.
Waxed cotton became an instant success with the commercial shipping industry, and Webster's as primary manufacturers turned to thinking of alternate markets that the product could be used in.
One of the early adopters was J. Barbour & Sons in the outdoor industry, producing waxed jackets for farmers and gamekeepers; and as motorcycling was then the predominant form of personal transport, the new company of Belstaff also developed clothing.
Waxed cotton came in either black, or an inconsistent dark olive. Colour was controlled by the amount of copper left from the cupro-ammonia treatment, and because of variability of the olive a complementary dark brown corduroy collar was placed on dark olive jackets.
Barbour's entered the motorcycling market from the early 1930s, with the Barbour International motorcycle suit, developing their market presence through sponsorship of the British competitions and teams in motorcycle trials. Barbour International suits were worn by virtually every British International team from 1936 to 1977, and in the 1964 International Six Days Trial, actor Steve McQueen and the rest of the American team.
Adopted as the first choice waterproof clothing for the British armed forces during World War II, uses of waxed cotton escalated in the late 1940s and 1950s as spare material and army-surplus was sold off cheaply.
Rubber was also widely used for waterproofs during the nineteenth century and although not breathable was highly versatile and widely used. In 1823 Charles Macintosh patented a double textured fabric sandwiched around a layer of rubber. The ‘Mackintosh’ became the synonym for the rain coat. Improved Macintosh was extremely versatile and was developed for fashionable wear and sporting activity and was made by numerous Manchester manufacturers. Other waterproof and wind proof fabrics, such as Burberry, Grenfell and Ventile were developed from the late nineteenth century.  By the early 1960s wartime-developed materials including Nylon and PVC had come to the commercial market in volume. The development of synthetic polymers innovation began in the 1920s gathering pace during and after the Second World War, though it took time for light, breathable waterproofs to be developed.
Although the uses of waxed cotton have reduced considerably, today there are various forms of waxed cotton with differences in look, touch and performance between each one. Modern uses of waxed cotton have niched to those areas where its greater warmth provides a greater benefit over its cost, weight and maintenance disadvantages.
As wax and cotton are both natural products, they decay and reduce in effectiveness over time. To reduce this decay, waxed-cotton products should never be stored in a damp condition, but dried gently. Waxed cotton also needs regular annual re-waxing. As the form of waxing and consistency differs between manufacturers, re waxing should only be undertaken with rewaxing products from the original product manufacturer. Rewaxing is best undertaken in the summer, when the material is naturally at a warmer temperature. Then, in small sections, wax is warmed and then placed on the material, and rubbed into the material with a soft cloth. Once fully applied, the material should be gently warmed to allow the wax to both seep in and create an overall even covering.
- "History". Halley Stevensons. Retrieved 2009-11-10.
- Emiliano Marino. The sailmaker's apprentice: a guide for the self-reliant sailor.
- "Barbour ReWax". Larks of Vancouver. Retrieved 2009-11-10.
- "Waxed Cotton". David Morgan. Retrieved 2009-11-10.
- "History". Belstaff. Retrieved 2009-11-10.
- For more details see http://innovation-for-extremes.net/gear-timezone/product-biography/product-biography-the-waterproof-jacketpart-1-1820-1938/
- For more details see http://innovation-for-extremes.net/gear-timezone/product-biography/history-of-the-waterproof-jacket-part-2-the-polymer-innovation-revolution-1950-date/