Is Waxed Cotton Waterproof?

On the face of it, cotton doesn’t have a lot going for it in the waterproof stakes.

If you’ve ever been out in a heavy rainstorm wearing only a denim jacket, you will know this to be true.

But add wax to cotton, and it’s a game-changer. Cotton is no longer confined to dry weather if you have a waxed cotton jacket to wear. Nor your choice of backpack if yours is a waxed canvas bag.

The video below is the perfect answer to how waterproof waxed cotton is:

Is Waxed Cotton Waterproof?

Let’s answer this question off the bat: it’s very water resistant, but not technically waterproof. This means your waxed jacket will keep you dry in a rainstorm, but it won’t in a bath. 

As we’ll discuss below, cotton fabrics (like canvas, which is most often associated with waxed goods) is a more porous material than many synthetics. Made with densely woven cotton, canvas’ thickness is measured by ounces per square yard, with most waxed canvas goods falling between 8 and 18 ounces. The thicker it is the more water resistant it’ll be, but it still won’t be all that waterproof until it’s waxed.

Wax adds a layer over the top of the cotton that’s both flexible and waterproof: water will slide off of the material when it’s waxed.

If you throw a waxed canvas bag into a lake, the contents will eventually get wet. However, a waxed bag or jacket will hold up to your average rainstorm without an issue — just note that with wear, it’ll need rewaxing every year or so to maintain that waterproofness.

Flint and Tinder Flannel-Lined Waxed Trucker Jacket waxed canvas
A super closeup of the wax on Flint and Tinder’s waxed canvas trucker jacket.

What You Will Learn

In this guide to waxed cotton and waxed canvas fabric, you will learn everything you need to know to make informed purchasing decisions. You will also discover:

  • Why cotton sucks (sometimes)
  • The intriguing backstory of waxed canvas waterproof clothing
  • Why you should buy wax cotton jackets
  • Why synthetics aren’t the answer
  • How to wax a jacket

Move Over, Gore-Tex

More modern materials like Gore-Tex and other synthetic materials may be many people’s default for waterproof clothing, and I get why: it’s lighter than waxed cotton and the waterproofness doesn’t wear away. But there are plenty of reasons, as we will see, why you should be looking at waxed cotton products instead.

For example, when lightweight Gore-Tex was invented at the end of the Sixties, they single-handedly popularized the concept of breathable waterproof membranes.

Or so they thought. In reality, they were somewhat late to the party as 15th Century sailors had been achieving very similar results by waxing their canvas sails.

Why Cotton Is Regarded as Rotten

At first glance, cotton isn’t the obvious choice for outdoor gear. In its natural state, it could never be described as water resistant.

This is because cotton fibers are hollow, the particles of which have a negative electrical charge. Water, conversely, is composed of positively charged molecules. The result is that water molecules are attracted and fill up the microscopic gaps between the cotton fibers.

This is, unfortunately, a very efficient process. So good, in fact, that cotton can suck up to 27 times its own weight in water droplets. This is why untreated cotton takes such a long time to dry out.

Risk of Death

But that’s the worst of it. As water can remove body heat 25 times quicker than air alone, you run the risk of hypothermia in even relatively mild weather.

As outerwear, cotton only works in dry conditions. But add a wax coating, and cotton takes on a whole new water resistant life.

And you have Scottish sailors to thank for that.

Waxed Canvas Raincoats
Image Source: National Wales Museum

The History Behind Waxed Cotton and Waxed Canvas jackets

Around the 15th Century, canny Scottish sailors observed that their canvas sails captured the wind better when wet…up to a point. If the sailcloth got too waterlogged, any gains in speeds were quickly reversed as soaking wet canvas is incredibly heavy.

The answer to this puzzle was to waterproof the sails to the extent that they never become waterlogged.

Therefore, the reason old-time mariners experimented with treating their sails was practical; they needed their sails to be as efficient and rigid as possible while navigating the high seas.

Flint and Tinder Flannel-Lined Waxed Trucker Jacket Canvas

Scottish mariners to the rescue

The Scottish sailors then hit on the idea of treating sailcloth with linseed oil or fish oil. This enabled their sails, the sole means of propulsion, to shed water even in driving rain. In addition, because the fibers were so tightly woven together, it was relatively easy to plug the gaps and block out the rain.

Passages between ports became significantly quicker as a result of not having waterlogged, wet sails.

Durable coats ‘sail’

The addition of relatively cheap and readily available linseed oil and fish oil made a huge difference. And not only to the ship.

Mariners were quick to realize that waterproof canvas fabric can just as easily be made into rainwear. Old and damaged linseed oil-treated sailcloth was then at a premium for bad weather on the high seas.

But linseed oil wasn’t the perfect solution: in cold weather, it became stiff and cracked. Conversely, during hot weather, the oil would seep out. Over time, clothes would discolor and turn yellow, hence the traditional fisherman’s garb.

[Related: The 7 Best Waxed Canvas Jackets]

The development of waterproof fabrics

To address the shortcomings of waterproof cloth, paraffin wax was developed. Typically, this too came about by accident in 1830 when a German chemist discovered that residues left over from refining petroleum (gas) into oil for lubrication could be made into a form of wax.

As this paraffin wax was colorless and odorless, it was put to a great many uses, including the waterproofing of fabrics being made into coats.

Best of all, paraffin wax was incredibly inexpensive to make.

Suddenly, waxed cotton and waxed canvas became more practical, requiring little maintenance compared to before.

The military’s thirst for waxed cotton and waxed canvas

When the world was gripped by global conflict in the Great War and later in the Second World war, the military rapidly adopted waxing cotton jackets and outdoor clothing for their soldiers and sailors.

By this time, treating garments and material with linseed oil and beeswax to make cotton and canvas waterproof was a thing of the past.

Wax cotton demand explodes

In the interwar and post-WW2 years, civilian demand for waxed cotton fabrics exploded, and waxed canvas had a new post in the peacetime world. Civilians, many of whom had served, drove the burgeoning demand for waxed cotton jackets and a host of other waxed canvas waterproof items.

And who could blame them? Waxed cotton jackets have a lot going for them, including being:

  • wind proof
  • can be worn anywhere
  • have high durability levels
  • are lighter than you may imagine
  • cheaper than leather

Made from durable waterproof material, waxed cotton jackets are nothing if not versatile.

One of the first to tap into demand for water resistant wax cotton was British Millerain in the 1920s. This UK company developed its own brand of woven paraffin wax cotton. Handily, for the military, the cotton fabric could be dyed black or dark olive green.

 

ship john wills
The mighty Ship John Wills Jacket

 

Going global

Much of the production went to New Zealand and the domestic market in Great Britain, where waxed canvas jackets became almost mandatory wear for farmers, fishermen, and anyone who worked outdoors.

Today, though, the groundbreaking cloth company does not have anywhere near the consumer awareness of Barbour jackets. Indeed, Barbour’s waxed canvas clothing range is pretty much synonymous with waxed canvas in most people’s minds.

[Related: A 10-Year Review of Barbour’s Waxed Jacket]

Why Waxed Cotton and Waxed Canvas?

As well as durability and being waterproof, it is just as crucial ensuring waxed outerwear is breathable.

The idea is that the coat you wear should be capable of allowing sweat, i.e., water vapor, to escape through the cloth and at the same time keep the rain out.

As it happens, rain drops are large compared to water vapor. This means the microscopic holes in the material act as a non-return valve to let sweat out and stop rain from getting in.

That’s not to say waxed canvas is an especially breathable material: the point of it is it that it’s not too permeable, to be fair, and a lack of breathability is the main criticism leveled at waxed canvas. If breathability — meaning, something that won’t make you feel sweaty and stuffy if the temperature rises — is your priority, you might want something synthetic. If it’s cold and/or rainy, though, waxed cotton is a great shell.

Old idea updated

This idea — already in practice with waxed clothing — drove the development of Gore-Tex, as previously mentioned. The breakthrough for this synthetic material involved giving fluoropolymer a stretch to produce a mind-boggling 9 billion microscopic pores every square inch.

As a result, Gore-Tex allowed you to wear a coat, get sweaty, and not feel like you were in a sauna.

Buying Waxed Cotton and Waxed Canvas Clothing and Bags

If you examine a waxed cotton item of clothing in a store, the first thing you will notice is how heavy and stiff it is, probably more so than you expect at first glance. This is because filling the cotton or canvas fibers makes them heavier and less flexible.

Like leather, waxed cotton garments are famous for their appearance improving with age. A jacket that feels extra stiff in the store will soon soften up and mold itself to your body.

Unique appearance

Also like leather, waxed cotton and waxed canvas build up a unique patina over time and wear. With a little care, you can easily have a breathable waterproof jacket that will stay the course for decades. And that’s no stretch of the imagination.

flint and tinder old trucker jacket
via Huckberry

Looking After Waxed Canvas and Waxed Cotton

A fabric that’s been treated with wax will need to be re-waxed on an annual basis or so.

Thankfully, it’s not too much of an ordeal to ensure you get many more years out of your jacket.

The first step in re-waxing

Get your jacket as clean as possible by brushing away dust, grease, and debris. Do not, however, be tempted to wash your jacket in a washing machine. This type of wash is death to waxed clothing and renders them impossible to rewax.

In addition, just like leather, do not use soap or detergents on the fabric as these are simply too harsh.

A good soak

The best way to wash away stubborn dirt is by soaking your entire jacket in a bath overnight. If you need to wash your jacket like this, factor in having to leave it hanging overnight in a warm, ventilated area. Ensure it is thoroughly dry before you begin re-waxing.

The second step

After giving your jacket a wash and while waiting for it to dry, you can get the following items together:

  • a proprietary wax designed for waxed canvas and waxed cotton fabric (Filson’s Oil Finish Wax and Otter Wax are popular options)
  • stiff cardboard or plastic sheeting to prevent mess
  • a sponge
  • a clean cloth
  • a hairdryer

The third step

Stand your open tin of wax in a basin of hot, but not boiling, water. This is necessary to melt the wax and make it easier to work with.

While the wax is breaking up into a liquid state, stir it occasionally. In the meantime, preheat your jacket with the hairdryer on a high setting. Doing so will help the canvas or cotton fabric to absorb the wax more readily.

When the wax is melted, apply a dime-sized dollop to your sponge and rub it into the fabric using circular motions. Apply a reasonable amount of pressure to work the wax deep into the fibers.

Waxing liberally

Pay particular attention to seams and ensure you cover every inch of canvas. Spread any excess with a cloth.

It’s also a good idea to maintain the heat in the waxed canvas garment to help the rewaxing process. So use the sponge with your dominant hand and have the hairdryer in the other as you go along.

The key point is to get the wax worked into the fabric effectively. Then, if you wish, you can apply a second coat. This will take much less wax than the first coat as the fabric will have absorbed a substantial amount the first time around.

Some final thoughts

Waxed versus synthetic is a debate that will be ongoing for decades to come. Each camp has its diehard supporters that wouldn’t be seen dead in the other fabric.

Ultimately, there’s no definitive answer to this argument as to which is best because this depends on personal subjective opinion.

If you love the look and feel of heritage fabrics that recall the outdoorsmen of yore, if you like sustainability (Gore-Tex isn’t biodegradable), if you like durability, then you’ll support waxed outerwear. If you prefer your apparel to be as light as possible and you don’t want it to need maintenance (like rewaxing a jacket), you might prefer synthetics. 

Either way, you are going to be cozy and dry.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use my Apple Pay Diners Club card to buy a waxed cotton jacket?

Yes, most retailers accept this now, along with other big-name credit cards and PayPal if you buy online.

Is Barbour a registered trademark?
Yes, in the UK and as of December 218 in the US as well.

Can you get waxed canvas bags?

Yes, in waxed canvas and waxed cotton. Fabric like this has been put to use in a multitude of ways. Don’t miss our list of the best waxed canvas backpacks to get started.

Can I wash a waxed jacket in my washing machine?

No, it may appear to be a good idea, but you will ruin your garment and be unable to rewax it.

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By day: Manhattan-based journalist with reporting experience on four continents, published in Vice, Men's Health, Popular Science, and a bunch of other places.By night: ravenous consumer of anything and everything related to high end men's boots.Stridewise is where I nurture a maniacal obsession with footwear and share my findings. Say hey: [email protected]

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