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Behold the rugged beauty of waxed cotton jackets

Waxed cotton protects like modern fabrics and ages like fine leather

Modern science has created fabrics that are remarkably light and breathable while providing complete protection from the elements. The functionality of these advancements cannot be denied but they lack the texture and character of old fashioned fabrics. If you prefer a more charismatic fabric for your outerwear then waxed cotton is the way to go. A well made and properly maintained waxed cotton jacket provides both exceptional protection from the elements and a rugged beauty that modern science cannot match.

A vintage print advertisement for Barbour jackets.

Waxed cotton jackets come in a wide variety of styles designed for a wide variety of uses but they all have one key attribute in common. Whether it’s a parka or an English motorcycle jacket, all waxed cotton develops a rich patina with age. This patina is similar to leather and it presents a texture that is constantly evolving to the body shape and usage of the owner. This means that the more you wear your waxed cotton jacket, the more it takes on an appearance that is completely unique and customized to your body. 

The history of this fabric and how it became a menswear classic is just as interesting as the properties of the fabric itself. There are good reasons why waxed cotton has stuck around for over a century as one the essential men’s outerwear options, despite all the textile innovations that have happened in that time. So let’s take a look at where this legendary fabric came from, how it went from strictly utilitarian to essential fashion, and where you can get your very own waxed cotton jacket right now. 

Origins: Born of the sea

An old sailor standing on a boat in a jacket and hat

Sailors have known for centuries that wet sails hold the wind better than dry sails but wet sails are heavier and add drag to the ship. So in the early 1700s, English sailors developed a way to saturate sail cloth with oil. This added the wind-catching property of wet sails with much less weight. It also made the sails water-resistant, preventing them from taking on extra weight. 

Eventually, sailors began to cut capes and hats out of the same sailcloth to produce weather-resistant clothing. The oiled sailcloth yellowed with time and this was the origin of sailors wearing yellow jackets and hats. Linseed oil was used from 1795 until the 1920s when the English started using paraffin wax derived from petroleum. Paraffin wax has remained the industry standard to this day, although you can find cottons waxed with a natural beeswax.

From utility to fashion: McQueen and the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II in a Barbour Balmoral Jacket.

Barbour & Sons is credited with being the first company to commercially produce waxed cotton jackets in 1894. Waxed cotton jackets are almost synonymous with Barbour because they not only invented them, they were also the first waxed cotton jackets to transition into popular fashion. Barbour started out by making clothing for farmers and gamekeepers. Their original designs featured a high collar or hood and fell below the knee for maximum weather protection. A cropped version was developed in the early 1900s to allow for riding horses and tractors.

This hip-length barn coat from Barbour, known today as the Ashbey and Bedale models, became a favorite of the English royal family in the 1970s and 1980s. The speculation is that Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II, and their court began wearing this working-class jacket as an attempt to connect with the common citizens of England. Regardless of their intentions, Barbour jackets became a staple of first English and then American upper-middle-class fashion in the 1980s. 

Steve McQueen in a Barbour International Jacket, on a motor cycle.

Barbour is also responsible for inventing the second most popular style of waxed cotton jacket: the English motorcycle jacket. In the 1930s, as motorcycles became popular in the UK, Barbour created a jumpsuit made out of waxed cotton with reinforced shoulders and elbows and large cargo pockets placed for easy access while on the bike. These suits became the official outfits of British moto teams in the 1950s and then the Americans in the 1960s which lead to the top half of the suit being cut off into a jacket and branded as the Barbour International jacket. After notable motorsports enthusiast and sometimes actor, Steve McQueen rode with the American team in 1964, the Barbour International jacket became an instant menswear icon. 

On patina: To re-wax or not to re-wax?

A vintage Belstaff rig.

Waxed cotton develops a patina as the wax that sits on top of and within the fabric shifts and sheds off. The highly developed wax used in waxed cotton, unlike candle wax, is not entirely solid. This allows the wax to move with the cotton, preventing any stiffness. However, this also means that the wax will gradually wear away from exposure to the elements and from the material rubbing against other objects and itself. Minute color variations will start to form where the wax recedes and collects in the shape of spots and lines. 

The first places to wear away will be the shoulders from weathering and elbows from friction. A majority of the patina markings, however, will be based on your body type and how you wear the jacket. These markings add unique character to your jacket and have led to a debate among waxed cotton enthusiasts about whether or not to re-wax your jacket. The obvious benefit of re-waxing is maintaining weatherproof integrity. If you don’t rewax every couple of years, or once a year with frequent wear, then water will seep through your jacket and body heat will seep out. 

The anti-waxers will tell you that re-waxing undoes all the beautiful patina you worked so hard to develop. However, not all the aging is lost in the re-waxing process. Think of it like pouring lacquer over aged wood; you will have a new finish but all the deep set texture within the wood will just be better preserved. So routine re-waxing will undo minor patina but over many years, you will see a much deeper and richer patina set in that is permanent. 

The mill: Millerain

The logo for British Millerain on a jacket.

An article about waxed cotton jackets would be incomplete without mentioning British Millerain. They’re the textile mill behind the best waxed cotton jackets made by companies that don’t produce their own fabric — which is most of them. What Horween is to leather, British Millerain is to waxed cotton: a mark of top quality. Any time you are checking out a jacket and you see that the fabric comes from British Millerain then you know that you are getting a high-quality garment. 

The classics: Top five brands for waxed cotton jackets

Barbour

A Barbour Bedale jacket in olive

Barbour is the original and has more heritage and prestige than any other waxed cotton jacket brand. They’re the brand people tend to think of when they hear waxed cotton and for good reason. Their jackets aren’t necessarily the highest quality but they are investment pieces that will last you decades if you take care of them.

Belstaff

A Belstaff Trailmaster jacket in black.

Belstaff is the bougie British motorcycle jacket company. They make a broad range of waxed cotton, leather, and modern fabric jackets. However, they are known for their Trailmaster British moto style jacket. If you’re going to spring for a Belstaff then this is the model to go with.

Flint and Tinder

Flint and Tinder waxed cotton flannel lined trucker jacket in tan.

Flint and Tinder is a relative newcomer to the waxed cotton jacket game but they have certainly made a name for themselves. As an American company, they designed their signature jacket with a distinctly American look, based on a classic trucker jacket. Their flannel-lined waxed trucker jacket has been the best-selling outerwear item on Huckberry for years now, so it must it pretty good.

Rouge Territory

A tan waxed cotton jacket from Rouge Territory

Rouge Territory started out as a one-man operation crating bespoke jeans. The company grew into a full-fledged denim company and then expanded into shirting and outerwear. Their first crack at outerwear — the Supply Jacket — was so good that it became a cult classic and was eventually worn in the final Daniel Craig James Bond film. Rouge Territory makes a few waxed canvas outerwear options now but the Supply Jacket is still your best choice.

Peregrine

A navy blue anorak in rip stop waxed cotton from Peregrine.

Peregrine has been around for a long time (longer than Barbour actually) but they are the lesser-known heritage British outerwear company. This is a shame because their production quality is top-notch. They produce their goods in much smaller batches than Barbour or Belstaff so if you see something you like, you should act quickly because it tends to go fast.

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