Canvas is a uniquely textured fabric that has come to be associated with ruggedness and durability. Of course, when we investigate the origins of canvas, we see a link to a truly coarse material. The first known canvas material was made from hemp, a tough plant that is heavily associated with rope and other industrial products that require strength. Few know that the word “canvas” actually derives from the old Latin cannapaceus, which ties canvas to its linguistic cousin and hemp product cannabis. Despite its pothead origins, most canvas has been mainly constructed of linen and cotton in the last two hundred years.
Before the advent of synthetic fiber jackets, the intrepid men and women who voyaged out into the world had to brave the cold in a material called waxed canvas. It kept them stiff and warm in the cold, and was especially beloved by Scottish sailors, who were the first to utilize the material to weather the frigid winds on the Atlantic and North Sea.
These days, waxed canvas might seem like something of an antiquity, considering the swaths of different fabrics on the market, in which adventurers can swathe themselves. From ventile and denim, to polymers such as nylon, dyneema, neoprene et. al, the options are various and unending. But some still prefer the original choice of the mariner to stave away the rime. Waxed canvas has truly stood the test of time, as enduring historically as it is physically.
History of the Waxed Canvas Jacket
The First Waterproof
The history of the waxed canvas jacket is a wonderful sea-tale, almost worthy of Melvillian lore. The origins can be traced back to the early 1800s, when clipper ships and merchant vessels crossed the oceans, using sails that were usually manufactured in Scotland. Sailors noticed a peculiar property in the flax-based fabric of the ship seals. They observed that when the sails became wet, they could catch the wind much better. When they became saturated with water, they ceased to be porous to the air, causing the sea vessels to accelerate across the water at a much faster pace. The sailors had the idea to cure the fabric with Linseed oil in order to make it waterproof, and similarly adept at catching the wind. The problem with a wet sail was that it became incredibly heavy, so a Linseed-cured sail would have the benefit of the original waterlogged flax, without the drawbacks. These smart sailors had revolutionized the sailing industry at that moment, for from that insulating method came not only an improvement to ship sails; it also marked a wind shift for the wardrobes of seafarers. From this waterproofing technique came the original fisherman’s slicker jacket, and other clothes equipped for seagoing.
Still, the combination of Linseed oil and flax had its disadvantages. Linseed oil calcifies fabrics, making clothes hard to move in. It also yellows with use, which is why the jackets and capes worn by fisherman are traditionally yellow. There was still room for improvement. The mid-1800s saw a pivot from flax, which was used to make waterproof linen canvas clothing, into cotton canvas materials. Cotton was both lighter and cheaper, and less prone to becoming stiff and rigid. Woven rightly in a two ply construction, in both warp and weft, cotton was equally durable and impervious to water. It gradually took over for linen/flax. Another major shift took place in the mid 1920s, when a better way to wax canvas was discovered. This time, it wasn’t the base material that was improved, but the oil used to lacquer it. The new method involved impregnating cotton with Paraffin wax, which offered several advantages over the Linseed oil method. Namely, the fabric did not stiffen, remained breathable, and it didn’t yellow with age. Almost all waxed-cotton canvas materials were dyed black or olive green in the ‘20s and ‘30s (mostly because the cupro-ammonia treatment necessary to cotton impregnation automatically imparted a dark green color). It was used by the British Armed Forces during WWII, making them the only army to have waterproof clothing.
Following the war, waxed canvas or waxed cotton became a hugely popular fabric for heavy duty rain gear. Now firmly removed from the esoteric world of ship sails, waxed canvas was a hugely popular clothing material, especially for motorcyclists, as it was not only rugged and waterproof, but had the property of being thick, a quality that bikers cherish in their clothes (so that they don’t get chewed up by the asphalt). Though synthetic materials have risen in popularity over the years, the organics still remain a top choice, not just for their timeless appeal, but for the rugged properties that synthetics can’t always match. Canvas jackets stand the test of time, and you will never regret purchasing one. But it is true that a canvas garment does require some upkeep. Re-waxing a canvas jacket is vitally important to its remaining strong and effectively waterproof over the year. Should you decide you want to own one of these jackets, laden with rich history, you’ll need to know how to take care of it. Not only do they have a rich sartorial history, but with a little elbow grease – and a lot of wax – a canvas jacket can survive through decades of good use, and will stand up to the elements just as good, if not better, than any contemporary product out there.
How To Re-Wax Your Canvas Jacket
Before you begin the process, you may have to pick up a few supplies from the store. You’ll obviously need the garment and the wax, but you’ll also want to make sure you have a hair dryer or heat gun handy. As for what kind of wax you want to use, there is some room for preference here. Paraffin wax is the historically proven choice. Still, as you might imagine of a product that was first used for these purposes nearly 100 years ago, aspects of paraffin are obsolete, these days. Should you pick paraffin, you’ll want to make sure that your room is properly ventilated and that you’re wearing a mask, as paraffin wax has been shown to be pollutive indoors. Inhalation of paraffin wax fumes has been linked to lung cancer. Alternatives to Paraffin wax are plant-based waxes like soywax, animal-based waxes (derived from wool-bearing animal secretions, fish-based waxes, or beeswax. All of these options are effective and have their own unique properties. You may need to soften up the wax before you put it to use. An easy and effective way of doing so is to place the wax in a pot of hot – not scalding, but fairly warm – water, to ensure the wax becomes melty and spreadable. You may also want to use a lint roller to pick up any loose fuzz that has clung to your jacket, so don’t accidentally seal them onto your garment.
1. Clean Your Garment
Next, you’ll want to make sure the jacket – or bag, or gloves, whatever it is you are re-sealing – is completely clean. Don’t wash that canvas jacket in a washing machine, or with laundry detergent. Everything about this process will be old fashioned, and that includes washing and drying. No soap is necessary – simply use a bristled scrub brush and gently scrub off any stains or dirt on the canvas material. A soft cloth can be used, too. Despite its tough texture, you must treat the fabric softly. Use cold water if necessary.
2. Wax On, Wax Off
Now comes the important part. That time-honored act that can only be brought to fruition by a man and a piece of fabric. The impregnation. If it sounds intimate, that’s because it is; this is a delicate procedure that you’ll want to put effort and care into doing. Using a cloth, rub the heated wax onto the jacket, covering the entire exterior. Avoid the inside of the jacket and the pockets as you coat it in broad, even strokes. Pay close attention to the seams, making sure to cover the nooks and crannies with your wax.
3. Heat It Up
Once you’re satisfied that the jacket has been covered from tail to collar, heat the jacket using your hair dryer or heat gun. Make sure that it all dries up, and hang the jacket up overnight. Allow the wax to cure in a dry, warm area for 12-24 hours. Overnight, the wax will work its magic.
4. Test The Waters
Once the jacket has cured, it should have a warm, glossy sheen that looks like it would repel any liquid it encountered. Feel free to test its new properties out. Areas of high wear on the jacket are the most susceptible to loosing their resistance, so remember to occasionally touch up your canvas jacket to keep it seaworthy.
Here are a few winning waxes that will guide your canvas jacket restoration safely to anchor:
Filson Oil Finish Wax
Filson’s oil comes in a conventional tin, and is made from the traditional paraffin used by sailors for generations. Paraffin wax is remarkably durable while still yielding pliability. There is a reason it was so popular for so long, and if you don’t have qualms with fossil-fuel based products and the possibility of inhaling a few carcinogens (allegedly), then stick with the old standby.
Otter Wax is an excellent all-natural alternative to Paraffin wax. It comes in bar shape, so there is no need to use a cloth to apply the wax – simply press down on your garment to spread the wax around. Made from a proprietary mix of plant waxes and beeswax, this is an excellent way to refinish your canvas threads.
Fjallraven Greenland Wax
Next to the Scots, the Nordic people are the most proximal to the icy seas, and are therefore familiar with the importance of keeping warm and water-resistant. Greenland wax from Fjallraven is constituted of 65% parrafin and 35% beeswax, a very powerful composite which is highly effective and environmentally friendly.
Barbour Dry Wax
The Barbour Dry Wax bar is the perfect reproofing stick for touch ups. Use the sharp edges and corners of the wax bar to get into the places that a cloth can’t reach, and cover your jacket with ease and little mess.
12 Best Waxed Canvas Jackets For Men
Before you re-wax a canvas jacket, you’ll need a garment with which to work. Choose from the variety of the 12 best canvas jackets on the market, like an artist selecting a blank canvas.
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