At the beginning of BearMade we mapped out our ‘World View’. We didn't want be another brand doing the same stuff as everyone else, we just don't see the point in that. We thought long and hard about the things that were important to us as individuals, and as a brand. Working with sustainable, long lasting materials that are made by great people is definitely one of those important things. So there is a reason that, after months of testing fabrics, we chose British Millerains dry-waxed canvas.
Originating in Yorkshire in 1880, they were the first company in the UK to wax cotton. They are specialists in this fabric and continue to improve and develop it over 140 years later.
Over the last few weeks, we have finally had the opportunity to visit British Millerain and witness first-hand how our fabric is created. They have two facilities - their proofing and finishing facility in Rochdale and their dyeing facility in Elland, near Leeds.
The journey of our dry-waxed canvas fabric
Our GOTS organic cotton fabric starts its life in India where it is grown, spun and woven into the base material that we use for our bags. This fabric is sent by ship to British Millerain for dying and proofing.
How waxed canvas is dyed
We started our visit in Elland near Leeds, it's the home of British Millerains dye house. Located in a historic building that has been dying fabrics for over 100 years.
When we entered the building, the first thing we noticed was the hum of machines. There were stacks of un-dyed rolls on the left, and fabric moving over rollers and dipping into inky black dye on our right. Steam was coming off already dyed material that was being washed, and four or five employees were continually inspecting the process.
There was a lot to take in, but what really stood out to us was that, although a lot of the methodology was automated, every part of the dyeing process was overseen by eye. There were multiple checks of the fabric by expert craftsmen who visually inspected every inch of the fabric, because the machines ‘just don’t do it as well as the human eye’.
It was explained to us that our fabric was visually checked prior to being dyed, post dyeing to ensure the colour was even and post proofing (when the wax is impregnated).
We were curious as to how our fabric was dyed, specifically what happened to the waste water after the process.
It turns out our fabric is dyed using a Cold Pad Batch machine. It is highly energy efficient as the fabric is dyed at room temperature. This uses a lot less water and energy than other dyeing methods. All the water waste from the dyeing and washing process is collected and taken away by the council. It goes through a filtering and cleaning process that removes the dye and the water comes back to the facility to be reused.
It was mesmerising watching the fabric move through a system of rollers then entering either a dye bath or going into a sort of giant pizza oven to be dried.
Why waxed canvas repels water
We use a dry waxed canvas for our bags, it lacks the oily feel of traditional waxed canvas yet maintains its water resistant properties. And unlike traditional waxed canvas, according to British Millerain, our fabric is machine washable. We haven’t spoken about this feature of our bags much as we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around how it could maintain its water repellency post being washed. However, after an explanation from Adam at British Millerain, all became clear.
The ingeniousness of this fabric comes from how it's waxed.
It was explained to us that, Initially, it goes through a heated wax bath which soaks the material. The fabric then enters a 140℃ oven which heat fixes the wax. The temperature is the key feature here. At this heat it causes the wax to completely bind to the fibre matrix of the fabric. This cannot be undone, so unlike other waxed products which rely on an outer coating of wax for repellency, our fabric has it enmeshed into the fibres themselves.
The wax used is a proprietary, PFC free formula. They keep the exact recipe close to their chests, but they did mention that it includes beeswax which is farmed from natural hives (the bees make their own hive rather than being provided a wooden frame) in Africa.
Is waxed canvas a sustainable fabric?
Our time spent with Adam was massively enlightening. We had some great chats about the world of sustainable textiles, how there are a number of modern materials and methods out there that sound great, but in reality don't have the longevity of more traditional methods and materials. This doesn’t mean British Millerain aren’t continually exploring better ways to do things. They absolutely are. They have an onsite lab that is continually trialling and testing new methods of dyeing, proofing and finishing. However they, like us, believe that making something to last a longtime is key to making a truly sustainable product.
The whole experience was extremely welcoming, informative, generous and open. We obviously already liked the company and the materials, but when we met them in person their genuine passion really shone through. Now we have total respect for them and all that they do.