In Stornoway Harbour on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides stands a wooden sculpture of a fisherman, carved in honour of the herring industry that sustained the island in the 19th and 20th centuries. As well as a pair of strikingly heavy boots that must have anchored him to the deck in high seas, he wears a full-length oilskin coat and a sou’wester hat. Both are bright yellow. The colour seems oddly cheerful given what must have been bleak working conditions, but it would be wrong to assume it’s merely a quirk of style. In fact, it exists for a highly practical purpose – one with a direct link to the waxed-cotton jackets still worn today.
It was Scottish seafarers’ ingenuity that led to the invention of the waxed jacket. Back in the 15th century, sailors were voyaging between Scotland and the Baltics importing flax and linen for the Scottish weaving industry. The journey was arduous, especially in winter, and both men and the linen sails of their boats were often soaked with water. The sailors noticed that the sails operated more smoothly when wet, despite being heavier and slowing the boats’ speed. Some resourceful individual hit upon the idea of coating the sails with fish oil – another common ingredient of the sailing life – to waterproof them while also improving their aerodynamics. It can’t have smelled very nice, but it worked.
Gradually, fish oils were replaced by linseed oil – a by-product of the imported flax – which gave a longer-lasting result. Remnants of old sails that had come to the end of their lives were made into weatherproof capes and hats for the mariners. They were a godsend in bad weather, but they had one disadvantage: the linseed oil cracked over time, so it had to be reapplied regularly. It also turned yellow with age – the colour that’s still associated with seamen’s clothing today.
The next stage in the evolution of the waxed jacket came about thanks to the infamous “tea races” of the 19th century. Tea clippers competed to be the fastest to get their cargo from China back to London – which, understandably, led to a desire for faster sails than the old, heavy linen variety. Since the clippers were also picking up shipments of Egyptian cotton from Africa on their journeys home, it was decided to try this lighter, denser fabric. The results were excellent, not only for the ships but also for clothing, as the cotton was less cumbersome and its close weave made it less porous.
Technology, and war, conspired to change things again. In the 1930s, paraffin wax treatments were developed by a consortium of companies including Francis Webster Ltd – which had helped to pioneer the use of linseed oil-coated fabrics in the 18th century – and cotton finishing specialist British Millerain. The paraffin treatment didn’t turn yellow and was much more breathable, although it did still require annual resealing and the colour palette was limited to black and khaki.
Francis Webster was initially unsure about its innovation and, not wanting to jeopardise trade at home, decided to test it out in a distant corner of the British Empire: New Zealand, which was damp and mild like Britain. Trials revealed that the new treatment worked brilliantly as rainproof clothing. It was no longer just for sailors, either. Usage expanded to the military – waterproof tents and coats were made for the British Army during World War Two – and into areas like farming, motorcycling and country sports. In this context, the lack of anything but earthy colours can only have been an asset, and, to some extent, we still associate waxed-cotton rainwear with the black-brown-ochre spectrum. However, that may be set to change. Specialist makers like Dundee-based Halley Stevenson (which makes our waxed-cotton raincoats) can now create brighter colours like red, aubergine purple and cobalt blue. Even better, the latest fabrics are coated with new-generation hydrocarbon waxes, eliminating the chemical smell once associated with waxed rainwear.
Other waterproof materials have come along, but none has the durability and breathability of waxed cotton. PVC, for instance, provides little insulation and cracks when it gets old, whereas waxed cotton, well treated, can last a lifetime and more. You will still need to re-coat it each year (many manufacturers advise doing so in the summer, when warm weather helps the wax seep into the fabric) but the reward will be a garment with a unique patina that keeps going season after season. Sometimes the old ways are the best.
Words by Amy Bradford