Waxed cotton

Sturdy fabric waterproofed with wax

A pouch created using waxed cotton.

Waxed cotton is cotton impregnated with a paraffin or natural beeswax based wax, woven into or applied to the cloth. Popular from the 1920s to the mid-1950s, the product, which developed from the sailing industry in England and Scotland, became commonly used for waterproofing. It has been replaced by more modern materials but is still used by the country sports community.
The main drawbacks are two: waxed fabric is not very breathable and tends to be heavier and bulkier than modern synthetic waterproof materials.

A men\'s waxed cotton Barbour jacket in green.

Waxed cotton became an instant success with the commercial shipping industry, and Webster\'s as the primary manufacturer looked for alternative markets.
One early adopter was J. Barbour & Sons in the outdoor industry, producing waxed jackets for farmers and gamekeepers. As motorcycling emerged as personal transport, the new company 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 liquidated.

Rubber was normal waterproofing 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 polyvinyl chloride (PVC) had come to the commercial market in volume. The development of synthetic polymers began in the 1920s, gathering pace during and after the Second World War, though it took time for light, breathable waterproofing to be developed.

Although the popularity of waxed cotton has decreased considerably, there remain various forms of waxed cotton with differences in look, touch and performance. Modern uses of waxed cotton have consolidated to a niche where its warmth provides a benefit over its cost, weight and maintenance disadvantages.


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The pocket of a green Barbour jacket showing wear

Wax and cotton are natural products that degrade and lose effectiveness over time. To help preserve them, waxed cotton products should not be stored damp, but slowly dried instead. Waxed cotton typically needs annual re-waxing. Because methods of waxing differ between manufacturers, rewaxing products from the original manufacturer are recommended. Rewaxing is best undertaken in the summer, when the material is naturally at a warmer temperature. Then, in small sections, wax is warmed, placed on the material, and rubbed into it with a soft cloth. Once fully applied, the material should be gently warmed to allow the wax to penetrate and evenly cover it.


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