What’s Oilskin?

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Waxed leather is a waterproof fabric made by impregnating oil into canvas. It was commonly used for waterproof clothing and coatings, particularly by sailors. Although it was uncomfortable, it was worth it for the protection it provided. With the development of synthetic fibers, waxed garments were replaced. However, it is still possible to buy oilcloth and clothing made from it, and people can even make their own using beeswax.

Waxed leather is a fabric that has been impregnated with oil to make it waterproof. Before the development of synthetic fibers, this was the material of choice for waterproof clothing and coatings. Sailors, in particular, became familiar with the oilskin, as it protected them from the elements at work. As a result, many sailors still call modern rainwear by this name, although they are made of different materials.

The base material for the oilskin is usually canvas, as it is sturdy and the cotton fibers absorb the oils that are rubbed into it. Linseed oil was a common choice, although waxing could also be made by rubbing pitch and tar into the canvas. As well as repelling oil, the fabric also repels spills and as a result has often been used for table and floor cloths. Garments made from it were also known as “waxed skins”.

As you can imagine, waxed garments weren’t always comfortable. The fabric may be stiff and unpleasant to wear until it has broken down a bit, and may even have an unpleasant odor, depending on the type of material used to waterproof it. However, the benefit of not getting wet was usually worth the cost of minor discomfort or irritation.

Oilcloths were used by people outdoors generally, as well as sailors. Hunters, for example, often wore tarpaulin jackets, and tarpaulin was used to wrap loads to protect them. When synthetic fibers entered the market, most people replaced the bulky material with the new stylish products. Modern waxes often include design features designed to make them more useful, such as sleeve closures to keep water out.

It is still possible to buy oilcloth and clothing made from it, and people can even make their own. Oils like beeswax are great waterproofers and have a pleasant smell, unlike old-fashioned tar. Clothing and shoes can also be oiled to make them waterproof if they aren’t already; sneakers and canvas jackets, for example, could benefit from an oiling. Some companies make beeswax and oil products specially designed for this purpose, and shoe stores often sell these products.

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