Whether on the city streets or on a far-flung shoot, there is one aspect of British life that affects urban and rural people alike ? specifically, the British weather and how we protect ourselves from it. Consequently, the wax jacket is an item of clothing that has straddled the line between functionality and fashion, becoming just as popular with confirmed townies as with country people. And the wax jacket of choice is, of course, the Barbour ? a classic from a celebrated British manufacturer.
Today, Barbour is a fifth-generation family-run business that manufactures a complete wardrobe of clothing and accessories sold in more than 40 countries, making the company a globally recognised name.
With the style of the English countryside very much in vogue with fashion houses ? even being embraced by American brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger ? I visited Barbour?s South Shields factory to find out why its clothes are now just as prominent on the pages of GQ or Esquire as they have always been in Shooting Times. I discovered that while the company has profited from this trend on the catwalk and on the high street, it recognises that its core customers have always been in the fieldsports market, and in particular shooters.
Founded 12 years after Shooting Times in 1894 by John Barbour, a Scot from Galloway, the company established itself in South Shields in Tyne and Wear by supplying oilskins and other weatherproof clothing to sailors, fishermen and dockers. Then, during both World Wars the company supplied outdoor clothing to the military, further enhancing its reputation for innovative, reliable outerwear. Barbour received its first Royal Warrant, issued by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1974, and further Royal Warrants issued by HM The Queen (1982) and HRH the Prince of Wales (1987) followed.
The company has stayed close to its roots, remaining in South Shields since its formation, moving to its current location at Simonside in 1981. It was in that decade that chairman Dame Margaret Barbour designed the three jackets that helped turn the brand into a household name: the Bedale, the Beaufort and the Border.
The process of weatherproofing fabric with oils and waxes can be traced back to the 15th century, when mariners created makeshift weatherproof capes by coating their heavy sailcloth with oil and grease. By the late 1700s flax sails were used, and a by-product of flax production was linseed, which was ground into a paste containing linseed oil. This was used to coat the sailcloth.
However, the weight of the flax sails became prohibitive and it was discovered that cotton provided a better alternative. The method of producing this weatherproof fabric remained largely unchanged until the 1930s, when a new generation of proofed cottons was developed. A new paraffin-impregnated cotton produced a highly water-resistant cloth that was much softer and was therefore ideal for outerwear.
After World War II, uses of waxed cotton multiplied, being adopted by fieldsports enthusiasts, gamekeepers, farmers and motorcyclists, and J Barbour & Sons was one of the early adopters, using it first in its popular International motorcycle suit.
In the intervening years, waxed fabric has developed, and in 2005 Barbour addressed one of the key complaints about the material, removing the distinctively pungent cupro-ammonia. It now uses a refined hydrocarbon wax in all its wax cotton products. The wax cotton that Barbour uses predominantly comes from UK suppliers including the British Millerain Company in Rochdale and Halley Stevensons in Dundee.