HISTORY of the waterproof jacket, part 1: 1820-1945

HISTORY of the waterproof jacket. part 1: 1820 – 1945.

see also our keeping dry guide: http://innovation-for-extremes.net/gear-timezone/latest-news/a-guide-to-keeping-dry-in-the-rain/

Who should read our 2 part product biography of the waterproof jacket?


Outdoor enthusiasts of all types including climbers, mountaineers, hikers, backpackers, instructors, outdoor retail staff, brand sales staff and designers.

Why read ?


  • This is an independent generic guide not brand specific.

  • There is a marked absence of generic information because all brands put their own interpretation on history and are often short on explaining function.

It helps you understand :


  • How gear has been designed over time

  • The materials used in waterproof garments, including polymers, fibres and coatings

  • How these different materials function

  • How designs have changed with new materials and their relationship to outdoor activities

The new version includes many technical updates and we have had access to scientific papers from Robert Lomax (the leading expert on hydrophilic coatings, which he developed in Lancashire from the 1970’s).


What do we cover?


  •  Innovation Overview: 200 years of evolution of the modern waterproof jacket
  • shown as the classic and dynamic entrepreneurial ‘dance of 2 questions’ – ‘What’s needed and what’s possible’.

  • We have added Paramo, Porelle/Sealskins, LA Triplepoint ceramic and eVENT, bringing this unique product biography fully up to date.

  • We show a long term transition in polymers and natural fibre fabrics. They are often used in parallel or in combination with non-breathable polymers until the so-called ‘breathables’ arrived.

  • Each generation of materials/chemicals/polymers/industrial process techniques from weaving through textile coating and lamination, meant the next level of improvement of what was needed became possible.

We track the evolution waterproofing through :



  • vegetable waxes, ( linseed oil)

  • mineral waxes

  • after a significant gap, into the polymer phase when market size had also expanded.

 The product biography is in two parts:


1. From indigenous peoples to the birth of coating technology and the beginnings of the battle of the breathables, coated fabrics versus cotton, Macintosh v Burberry.

2. The polymer revolution and the acceleration of the battle of the breathables.

**MoreInDryGuide – means more information will be available in the ebook version which we will eventually publish, a GUIDE to EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT KEEPING DRY IN THE RAIN.


Introduction and overview.

Animals, birds and insects have evolved to stay warm and dry.  Man also originally had a deep instinctive understanding of survival and of staying warm and dry, by using combinations of insulating furs, plant materials and even animal intestines. Yet one of the greatest technical challenges for textile manufacturers has been the development of weatherproof fabrics, which are comfortable to wear for vigorous activity. When we exercise we become warm and sweat. We have sweat glands all over our bodies and sweating is an evolutionary advantage enabling early hominids from maybe 2m years ago to have long distance endurance abilities beyond animals who are much faster over short distances. In comparison dogs have very few sweat glands ( they do exist but mainly between the paws) and are, unlike horses ( with sweat glands all over like humans) very suited to polar conditions.  

If waterproof fabrics do not allow our sweat/ water vapour to permeate out, or in other words do not ‘breathe’, this leads to over-heating and subsequent chilling. So a key need for vigorous outdoor activity is finding how to develop waterproof clothing that  is moisture vapour permeable, ( or what in consumer terms is called ‘breathable’ ) and is hence comfortable to wear. However the outer layer is only part of the story, the wearer’s management of the micro climate, with all the layers is dealt with in our ‘Keeping dry’ blog.http://innovation-for-extremes.net/blog/keeping-dry-2

Early Beginnings : From solutions by indigenous people to the birth of coating technology and competing cotton innovation


Neolithic period to 1945


We can learn much from looking at how indigenous peoples kept warm and dry.

Oetzi, http://www.iceman.it/en/node/269  was originally assumed to have a plaited grass overcape, but this is now in some doubt. Nevertheless vegetable fibres were used extensively for both dwellings and clothing for protection from the rain.

Semipermeable membranes are found in nature – in, for example, our stomachs and were used in clothing by indigenous people through to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Aleut American Indians ( who lived in the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russian Siberia) needed a totally waterproof jacket for hunting in their double cockpit kayaks called Baidarkas. They used dried seal or whale intestines and sealed the seams with animal glues to make a ‘kamleika’ as illustrated.


To check effectiveness after sealing, the Aleuts would tie off the cuffs and neck and fill with water.  Proof indeed that seam sealing is ancient and not modern. The picture below dates from 1910, but it is not known how long these practises continued.

The early natural fibres period and the innovation of coated fabrics and taped seams by Macintosh.

The origins of waterproof garments for outdoor sports lay in work-wear.

The development of waterproof, windproof, breathable textile fabrics began long before the Gore-Tex® revolution in the 1970s. It began with natural textiles, including silk and wool in ancient civilisations and continued with cotton and linen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Oiled silk is strong, waterproof, windproof and extremely light and was one of the first high performance fabrics. It was first used in umbrellas by the Chinese over 1,000 years ago and vegetable oil was used on silk through to the nineteenth century.

Waterproof garments were needed for outdoor work of all kinds from sea-faring, to farming, for the military, for riding and for driving horse drawn transport, as well as for sports of all kinds.

Many of the early solutions came through trial and error, using materials that came to hand, as with sailors who, in the 15th century, treated heavy duty sail cloth with linseed oil and a mix of other waxes and sometimes dubious additives ( bulls blood was quoted in one recipe!) to make weatherproof capes – the origin of so called ‘oil skins’. Oiling sailcloth (first linen and later cotton) with linseed oil from flax seeds, using hand methods akin to painting, evolved to become an industrial process by the end of the eighteenth century in Scotland. This was the origin of the processes used for waxed clothing in the 19th century. Over time the linseed oil methods were replaced by non sticky paraffin waxes and closer woven fabrics.


a picture of the Macintosh factory in 1857.

Manchester factory visible from Oxford Road Station

Lancashire, with its wide ranging cotton industry was home to many of the fabric developments that contributed eventually to the waterproof jacket. In 1823 Charles Macintosh patented a double textured fabric sandwiched around a layer of rubber, which was ‘impervious to water and air’ and indeed ‘smelt terrible’. This was the very beginning of textile coating technology (almost all textiles today, jackets, backpacks etc. have a coating to make them waterproof).

Natural rubber, aka gum rubber, came from South America. By 1736 the first scientific paper appeared in France describing the properties of natural rubber. During the 19th century products began to appear using it, but the rubber often perished. In 1843 Macintosh’s business partner Hancock filed a patent in parallel with Goodyear (USA), to stabilise rubber to temperature variations. Click for full story of Charles Goodyear

This opened the door  not only to Macintosh’s coated fabric jackets, but many other products including, later, bicycle and car tyres, and inner tubes.

The ‘Mackintosh’ (the garments had k added) became the synonym for the rain coat. Improved Macintosh was extremely versatile and was developed for fashionable wear and sporting activity and was made by numerous Manchester manufacturers. Indeed an exceptionally lightweight garment was designed to fit in a cigar case:

‘Hellewells’s waterproof 5 oz weight, reversible paletot (loose cloak) surpasses all others for fine and wet weather. Can be carried in a coat sleeve or a packet and folded up in the space of a cigar case. The lightest, the best and the most portable protection from rain and dust, adapted for fishing, rowing, yachting, riding, driving, hunting, shooting, coursing and deerstalking’

Because it did not breathe, Macintosh was, however, very uncomfortable and potentially dangerous  for energetic sports such as mountaineering. It could also be damaged by salt and sweat.

Traditional Weatherwear of Cumbernauld, who made waterproof clothing from rubberised cotton fabric, used the brand name “Mackintosh”, and around 2006 renamed the company “Mackintosh Ltd. They have a large production plant in Nelson Lancs making non rubberised fashion outerwear. Mackintosh bought the Nelson factory from Haythornthwaite and Sons Ltd (Grenfell) in 1999 and are currently expanding.

see the video story http://www.mrporter.com/journal/journal_issue76/8  


Wax and Oil


The next step was a revival of a very old technique, wax coating or impregnation. As chemistry developed as a science, many new mineral and petroleum based waxes, with higher melting points and different characteristics, became available. Numerous new companies sprang up on what was in essence an ‘emerging technology’.

In 1877 Helly Juell Hansen of Moss, Norway, himself a mariner, began producing ‘oil skins’ using linseed oil, initially for the local Norwegian market.  By ‘drying the linseed oil to a wax’, the garments became more flexible and comfortable to wear and increasingly popular, with Helly Hansen gaining 65% of the world market for waxed seafaring garments before the end of the nineteenth century.
Other producers of waxed clothing included Barbour – now an exclusive fashion, motor-sports and country sports brand. The company was  founded in 1894 in South Shields in North East England to make work-wear for sailors, fishermen, and dock and shipyard workers.

British Millerain was originally established in Halifax, Yorkshire (UK) and was set up in 1880. Unlike Barbour it was a processor and supplier of waxed finish fabrics to the garment industry rather than making the finished products.



Burberry was a direct response to Macintosh. The fabric was woven in Lancashire, very lightly waxed if at all and with a special design – Burberry’s self ventilating construction. Burberry began around the time that the sewing machine diffused into factories. Output expanded rapidly and marketing was directed at all manner of country sports. The Burberry business model was one of the earliest to be vertically organised in production and selling direct to the consumer.

Burberry’s patent of 1900 for a pivot sleeve, allowing full stretch arm movement for shooting or climbing was well ahead of its time. Indeed patterns for outdoor garments remained relatively basic until the 1990’s. **MoreInDryGuide


Burberry’s self ventilating waterproof gabardine (trademark registered in 1879) was breathable. Burberry pioneered innovative design with their patent of 1904. This underpinned a 2 layer fabric garment with lightly waterproofed wool liner and gaberdine outer, to prevent leakage ‘by capillary action’.   A 1910 advertisement claimed:

Burberry Trademark, Registered 1879

‘Like the plumage of birds and the scales of fish, Burberry prevents penetration by wet without sacrifice of the ventilating principles essential for health and comfort. Water is excluded by fine transverse threads which fill up the minute interstices formed by warp and weft, though air being more plastic, still finds an easy passage through the invisible spaces remaining.’

Burberry’s gabardine was extremely durable, came in numerous different weights, was made of worsted or worsted/cotton  and was both waterproof and windproof . It was used for tents as well as clothing. With origins in country sport tailoring, this versatility and its high quality placed it among a number of high class fashion brands – also including Grenfell and Jaeger- that became widely used in exploration, skiing and mountaineering. Its early 20th century advertising material described it as :

‘ideal for sport, games and other outdoor use involving exposure to rain, mist sleet or snow, to fluctuating temperatures; to cold winds or burning sun, to thorns, fish hooks and general rough usage.’

Burberry wind-proof suit


For its robust, lightness and wind and snow resistance  Burberry was used for sledging overalls by Polar explorers including Nansen, Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott and on the 1920s Everest expeditions. As part of his protective layering system George Leigh Mallory was wearing a pale green wind-proof Burberry climbing suit as his outer layer, for his summit bid in June 1924.  He was not in the mythical ‘tweed jacket’ . Our 3 year research project to replicate Mallory clothing layers (from the fragments brought back from Everest in 1999 ) demonstrated that the assumption that the clothing  heavy, ill-fitting, stiff, inadequate was totally untrue. The reproductions which the authors had made as part of the research project were used up to 25,000 ft on Everest with positive results. These fabrics are no longer available.


Invented for the Newfoundland/Arctic missionary Sir Wilfred Grenfell in 1923, Grenfell cloth was another  tightly woven, high quality, cotton gabardine that was used for flying suits, high quality leisure wear and, in the 1930s, for mountaineering for both tents and clothing. Grenfell Cloth was developed by T Haythornthwaite & Sons Ltd of Burnley and from 1931 was marketed by a new company “Haythornthwaite & Sons Ltd” .  In the early years, the company co-operated with “Baxter Woodhouse & Taylor Ltd” of Manchester to create garments from the Grenfell Cloth. The secret of the success of Grenfell lay in the combination of a light windproof and waterproof fabric, with a specially designed climbing suit, which became a classic for a decade. It was far more sophisticated than the Shackleton’s overalls and more modern than the Burberry climbing suits. A climber himself, Eric Taylor recognised that however good a cloth was, it was useless if the design of the suit was inappropriate.

1930s Grenfell Everest Suit

He developed a ‘standardised’ climbing suit, with variations for winter and summer, including a detachable hood, a jacket with zipped front and windproof wrists which could then be made up by a tailor.


Grenfell replaced Burberry as the preferred clothing for the 1930s Everest expeditions. Grenfell cloth continued to be used for mountaineering through to the 1960s.

1950s Grenfell Everest Suit worn by Ang Nyima, 1959/1960 British – Indian – Nepalese Services Expedition

These fabrics are no longer available. Thanks are due to David Haythornthwaite for supplying images of Grenfell suits.



Ventile was the third of the high performance fabrics associated with outdoor activities to come out of Lancashire. The fabric was developed by the British Cotton Industry Research Association (the Shirley Institute) which perfected a fabric using long stapled cotton, which kept out water when the yarns swelled. The first impetus for this breathable fabric came from a shortage of flax used for canvas fire hoses and water storage tanks, during the Second World War. But wartime demands altered the direction of the research somewhat. The high level of casualties for airmen on convoy duty, ditching into icy waters of the Atlantic, created a new requirement. The high level of casualties for airmen on convoy duty, ditching into icy waters of the Atlantic, created a new requirement. This became a problem because home based RAF fighter convoy escort was impossible –they just did not have the range and so Churchill had promoted the idea of catapulting Hurricane aircraft from the decks of merchant ships to provide local cover. Of course they then had nowhere to land and the pilot could either ditch or bail out. Although they were relatively easy to find as they had lights, within only minutes most died of exposure. Ventile was adapted for this and many military purposes and dramatically improved airmen’s survival chances from a few minutes to 20 minutes making rescue a real possibility. As a result 80% of anti-submarine pilots who fell into the sea survived, as compared with a mere handful previously. As a potential peacetime outdoor fabric Ventile was not impermeable – like rubber or plastic coated cloths- and so was also breathable, making it ideal for a wide range of active pursuits. Whilst there were some doubts about the durability of the lighter versions, the tests on British Ventile clothing in the Arctic in late 1940s ‘proved superior to any other type of arctic clothing similarly tested’. These fabrics are still available.

French climber, Pierre Allain ( see our innovator bio) made a conceptual design leap in the 1930’s in clothing, but before the technologies were correctly in place. One of the great all time mountain product innovators, Allain developed a system which combined a short down sleeping bag for bivouacs with a long waterproof over-garment, for which he used the French word for ‘cowling’ ie ‘cagoule’, a long rubberised silk garment as part of his bivouac gear in the 1930s. see part 2 for how the Cagoule came to UK.








end of part 1,  please go to part 2 for the POLYMER REVOLUTION

Our blog Keeping Dry http://innovation-for-extremes.net/blog/keeping-dry-2 explains how understanding garments improve performance.

Part of a series of product biographies of key outdoor products tracing their evolution. These are linked to other series including Great Innovators and Iconic Products. Sources:  Mike Parsons and Mary Rose, Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers (2003) and a range of unpublished sources  including the archives of Royal Geographical Society , Scott Polar Research Institute, British Library, Alpine Club, Ski Club of Great Britain, etc  and 25 interviews of key innovators, designers, outdoor testers, outdoor journalists  from the 1960s onwards. We are greatly indebted to Dr Robert Lomax of Baxenden/Chemtura Ltd  who gave his time and expertise so freely in June 2013 to give unique technical and historical perspectives.

see our KEEPING DRY GUIDE http://innovation-for-extremes.net/gear-timezone/latest-news/a-guide-to-keeping-dry-in-the-rain/

Avatar of Mike Parsons

About Mike Parsons

A lifetime in outdoor activities ( bike, ski , climb, mountaineer, kayak, backpack) and creating some iconic products - Karrimor; Karrimat, KSB, Haston Alpiniste, Jaguar, Hot Ice, KS-110e, KIMM, followed by a new start up in lightweight gear, OMM based on the original 1968 2 day mountain marathon. A chance phone call in 2000 from a certain Mary B. Rose of Lancaster University Management School resulted in me becoming co-author on the first history of outdoor product innovation which then lead on to a teaching collaboration, teaching innovation as a subject to u/grads and p/grads and last but not least being appointed 'innovator-in-residence'.

5 Responses to HISTORY of the waterproof jacket, part 1: 1820-1945

  1. mary rose says:

    Great extended and tech post.Good with Keeping Dry

  2. sarah howcroft says:

    Very valuable information for anyone interested in the development of outdoor gear. It would make an excellent must read post for training purposes. Just going to read part 2 Polymer Revolution

  3. Avatar of Mary Rose Mary Rose says:

    Glad you enjoyed Sarah. Thanks to David Haythornthwaite, whose family developed Grenfell Cloth, we have been able to add some additional images.

  4. Avatar of Mary Rose Mary Rose says:

    We use WordPress on this site though the site has been professionally designed. I would start with a free platform to learn on and then move on if needed.


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