Representing the thrill of motorcycling since 1936, with authenticity and style.


The History of Wax

Barbour has an incredibly long and loving history with waxed cotton, dating back to 1894. It could be argued that our relationship with this material for use in clothing is the longest running and most consistent in the world today.

Back in 1894...

When John Barbour founded J. Barbour & Sons, South Shields was a busy port in the North East of England. As such there was a big demand from Barbour for clothing that would keep all the sailors, fishermen, river, dock and shipyard workers dry. At the time, Barbour produced a range of clothing called the Beacon Brand and the term Oilskin was used to describe this thick weatherproof fabric. Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t actually invent Oilskins, and the process of weatherproofing fabric with oils and waxes predates even the original founder of Barbour himself.

Men of the Sea...

The process of impregnating fabric to make it weatherproof is traced back to the 15th century. Mariners used to oil and grease their heavy sailcloth and create makeshift weatherproof capes when out at sea to keep the winds and driving rain at bay. By 1795 the Scottish sailmaker Francis Webster Ltd made a form of oiled flax sails, and these were used by the fleet of British clippers at that time. A by-product when flax was made was a small seed called linseed. It was found that when these seeds were ground up to a paste, the linseed oil could be used to coat the flax sailcloth to make it weatherproof. This method produced a fabric which resembles the wax cotton material that we are familiar with today.

A new recipe...

Eventually the weight of these heavy flax sails became an issue for ship designers, the Clippers needed to be faster and lighter in order to gain an advantage over their rivals. It was then discovered that cotton was a perfect alternative to flax, and waxed cotton sails were introduced. The recipe for producing this weatherproof cotton remained pretty much unchanged from the mid 19th century right through to the 1930s, and the very first Beacon Brand Oilskins that Barbour produced back in 1894 were based on this traditional flax seed recipe.

Developing waxed cotton...

There were some problems with the original Oilskins, including the fabric becoming rigid and stiff in very cold weather, and also turning a shade of yellow. Therefore in the 1930s a new generation of proofed cottons were developed. The new paraffin impregnated cotton produced a highly water resistant cloth which was much softer than anything before it and designed to be used exclusively for outerwear. Woven in Scotland by Webster, this cotton was dyed in Lancashire, taken to London for a cupro-ammonia treatment, returned to Lancashire for waxing, then to Scotland for sale and distribution. The very conservative Scottish company did not sell the product in their own home market for the first major test - they sent it to New Zealand on the other side of the world. New Zealand was temperate and wet, but primarily it was a long way away, and any development problems could be overcome without affecting a later introduction in the home market. In the New Zealand trials however, the waxed cotton was a brilliant success. It became the standard fabric for rainwear, and the name given it there, Japara, was adopted as a trademark by the Scottish Mill.

Waxed cotton in motorcycling...

After the war, the uses of waxed cotton multiplied. It was quickly taken up by country sports enthusiasts, gamekeepers, farmers and motorcyclists. J Barbour & Sons was one of the early adopters. As a result the Barbour International motorcycle suit was born. The distinctive International Suit with its slanted map pocket was a favourite among trials riders and was worn the world over. During the 1964 International Six Days Trial, Steve McQueen and the rest of the American team all wore Barbour International Suits. Our suits were worn by virtually every British International team from 1936 to 1977, when Barbour made the decision to pull out of the motorcycle clothing market.

Waxed cotton today...

There have been improvements and changes in the production and manufacturing of waxed fabrics since the 1930s and the material has been refined over the decades including around 2005, the removal of the distinctive smelling cupro-ammonia from the paraffin wax, to create the unique wax cotton that Barbour is famous for today. But there are in fact several different types of waxed cotton that we use, and there are quite big differences in look, touch and performance between each one.