BearMade Guide to Waxed Canvas - BearMade

BearMade Guide to Waxed Canvas

Making our bags from waxed canvas wasn’t an accident.

We spent months testing materials before settling on a dry-waxed canvas from British Millerain. It’s an incredible fabric with an awesome story. In this blog, we go into:

  • How waxed canvas was first developed
  • The companies that made it famous
  • The waxed cotton canvas we use to make our bags

Waxed canvas was originally developed in the 15th century by sailors. 

In the age before steam-powered ships, sailors relied solely upon the wind. Harnessing this natural element meant quicker passage times, faster delivery times and therefore generation of more income. So the maritime industry was constantly trying to improve their ships to better maximise wind power. 

One of the biggest issues they faced was that the flax sails used would get waterlogged. Whilst wetter sails were more windproof - helping boats to catch more gusts and driving them forward - they also became very heavy and ultimately slowed the ships down. This posed the question: how can you stop wind from travelling through sails, without them being soaked in water?

Off the east coast of Scotland, herring fleets began experimenting with ways to make their sails more robust and less laden with water. They began coating their sails in fish oils and linseed oils to make them drier and more wind-resistant. Word soon spread and linseed oil was adopted as the main method of waterproofing sails worldwide. Sailors then began to experiment with offcuts of these oiled sails to use as capes which helped protect them from relentless sea spray and wind chill. This was the birth of oiled canvas outerwear. 

With the demand for lighter and ever more efficient sails, the construction of cotton sailcloth which had finer yarn and a stronger construction replaced the flax materials. Outerwear also shifted to oiled cotton.  

Linseed oil was not without issues, it cracked in cold conditions causing it to lose its weather-resistance properties and yellowed with age. In the 1930’s it was replaced with paraffin wax which could be impregnated into the cotton cloth. 

Oiled and wax canvas gear was developed out of functionality not aesthetic. For years it remained the attire of choice for sailors and fishermen. However, in 1894, John Barbour began developing wet weather apparel coated in oilskins and wax in South Shields, north east England. This trend caught on. Filson (in America) began producing waxed canvas clothing in 1897, Yarmouth Oilskins made oiled workwear garments for fishermen in the early 1900’s and Belstaff gained notoriety with its breathable waxed cotton jackets in 1924. Waxed cotton clothing became a fashion statement, reaching fame around the shoulders of Amy Johnson (the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia), political revolutionary Che Guevara and Hollywood icon Steve McQueen. 

As the demand rose and the durability of these materials had been proven, it makes sense that they found their way off the production line and onto a cutting table for making waxed canvas rucksacks and bags. Waxed canvas rucksacks were extremely fashionable in the 1980’s, coinciding with the rise in pop culture, particularly in the USA.

Today there are only two waxed canvas manufacturing companies here in Britain. Halley Stevensons in Dundee and British Millerain in Halifax, Yorkshire. They have been finding new, innovative ways of impregnating wax into materials to make them lighter, more weather resistant and durable for over 100 years. 

Our organic dry-waxed canvas bags are made from some of the newest materials developed by British Millerain. They have developed proprietary waxes and methods that allow the wax to be completely bound within the matrix of the fabric so that the material maintains its water repellency without the need for reproofing and is even machine washable. The water repellent finish is also PFC free and completely biodegradable.

We love that the material for our bags is made from something that has been tested, developed and proven over 100s of years. It is a material that is designed to last, just like our bags.  

Check out our collection of organic dry-waxed canvas backpacks and bags here. 

These wonderful words were written by Moj Taylor.

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