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Journal — Raw Material History

Waxed Canvas: Humble, Heroic Beginnings that Show No Signs of Fading Away

When we first formed Billykirk in 1999, we only had leather on our minds. However, within a couple of years we branched out and began making totes, carryalls, and pouches out of heavy duck canvas.  That was soon followed by waxed canvas, a material we grew up using in Minnesota for hunting and fishing. Duxback, L.L.Bean, Orvis, and Redhead were the predominant brands our father used, and they had one sole purpose: to keep you and your gear comfortable and dry. Waxed canvas was also durable, it wore in well, and could be re-waxed.

Another brand that I really aspired to have was Filson, but it was simply too expensive for a recent high school graduate. My friend Paul’s older brother, Dan, had a decent paying job and started buying Filson clothing and gear for snowboarding and hiking in the early 90s. I was always envious of his large Filson gear bags as well as his ‘Tin Cloth’ jackets and pants.  I recently asked Dan a couple questions about his Filson gear:

How did you become aware of the Filson brand? 

Dan: I first noticed Filson at Burger Brothers Sporting Goods up in the “new” Woodbury Village Shopping Center in 1992 (Burger Brothers was sold in 1996 and soon after became Gander Mountain.) 

What was the catalyst for using Filson? 

Dan: I really appreciated their durability and the waterproof waxed canvas. My Filson gear never let me down. I also liked the generous cut. I would wear sweatpants underneath. I didn't wear a belt, only the Filson suspenders. That gave me full range of motion, and because the waxed canvas breathed so well, I don’t remember ever being cold.

Did you know other snowboarders using Filson gear back in the early 90s?  

Dan: Over all those years, I never saw anyone else using Filson gear on the slopes. Although, my wife Elizabeth did remind me that some people commented on my Tin Pants in the chalet on that Montana trip to Bridger Bowl (photo below.) They knew what they were right off.

What brand of snowboards did you ride?

Dan: Burton Asym Air.

Dan wearing Filson Tin Cloth Pants, 1995, Bridger Bowl, MT
Dan and his Filson Tin Cloth Hat and Jacket, 1996, Seattle, WA
Dan’s 25 year old Filson Waxed Canvas Duffle, 2020

When our first waxed canvas items came off the production line in 2003, Filson was certainly on our minds, but waxed canvas was still viewed as a hard-working outdoor material. In fact, Barbour, Belstaff, and Filson, arguably three of the most iconic waxed canvas brands in the world today, were not at all mainstream, and certainly not sold in boutiques in Paris and Milan.

So, to whom do we owe for this waxed canvas material that has captured our imagination and caused vintage collectors around the world to swoon?

To find that out, one must go back to the 15th century and jump aboard a huge sailing ship. In order to get their precious cargo from port to port in an efficient manner, sailors began using larger and larger flax or coarsely woven hemp sails.

A Naval Encounter Between Dutch & Spanish Warships by Cornelis Verbeeck, 1618

The seamen also quickly realized that wet sails traveled faster and could hold more wind. However, wet sails were heavy so they began testing out grease, tar, fish oils, and even bull’s blood with varying degrees of waterproofing success. 

Sailors on the rigging. Photo by Alan Villiers, early 1900's

For hundreds of years, flax and hemp sails carried explorers, merchants, and military might millions of nautical miles. By the end of the 18th century, a clever textile millnamed Francis Webster Ltd. and later, Helly Hansen — discovered that when flax seeds were ground up to a paste, the flaxseed oil, commonly referred to as linseed oil (the first iteration of waxed canvas), could be used to coat the flax and hemp sailcloth, which prevented it from becoming soaked but kept it lighter in the heavy winds. 

Francis Webster advert
Helly Hansen factory

Though it was the chosen coating for well over a century, linseed oil was far from ideal. It cracked in cold conditions, lost its weather-resistant properties fairly quickly, and also turned yellow in time, leading to the traditional yellow of the fisherman’s slicker.

Charles W. Morgan, America's oldest commercial whaling ship still afloat. Launched in 1841. Photo by A.E. Packard

A fortunate bi-product of sail repairs was the oiled sailcloth (oilskin). Sailors used the material to craft crude smocks and hats to protect themselves and keep them warm from harsh biting winds, torrential rain, and sprays. Interestingly, little changed in their design and formulation until the 1930s.

  Sailcloth scrap courtesy of the National Maritime Museum Archives
 Two Dutch Sailors by M. Archer, 1899. Note they're wearing oil skin foul weather gear and Sou'wester hats. Their beards were cut that way so rain and sea water would be caught by the beard and lead to the outside of the coat, rather than down the neck and into the coat.
WWI Sou’wester hat coated in linseed oil via @recovered_relics (sold)

           

Reefing the Sails by Christian Krohg, 1900. 
"It is not the ship so much as the skillful sailing that assures the prosperous voyage" - George William Curtis

When sailing vessels reached their peak in size and complexity between the mid-18th and early 19th century, often referred to as the “Golden Age of the Sail,” these heavy oiled flax and hemp sails were becoming an issue for ship designers. These formidable merchant and war ships needed to be faster and lighter not only to gain an advantage over the lucrative trade competition but also for potential battle on the seas.

British clipper ship, Cutty Sark with sails set. Photograph by Captain Woodget, 1880's 

For centuries, sailmakers had been trying all sorts of sail configurations and had determined that the width of the cloth combined with the number of seams determined the strength and deformation resistance of a sail. That is why in the Middle Ages, sail and seam sections were more than twice the size as they were in the 19th century. It was also soon discovered that cotton was the perfect alternative to flax or hemp because it was lighter and stronger in large sail configurations. For large vessels, particularly in the United States, cotton was also used as a matter of necessity since it was indigenous and the supply of flax was periodically interrupted by wars such as the War of 1812.

However, the turning point for cotton sails came in the mid-19th century, thanks in part to the infamous ‘tea-races’ where companies were challenged to get their cargo from China and back to London as quickly as possible. Many of these tea clippers would stop off in Africa to pick up Egyptian cotton, which soon became a heavily sought after commodity.

Shipping on the Thames by Samuel Scott, 1740

A few industrious textile companies like Halley Stevenson, who at first relied on Jute and flax for their sails, recognized this growing Egyptian cotton sail market. They also were keen on the importance of waterproofing the sails. For many years, they, along with other textile mills, began to take the linseed application a step further and dry the linseed into wax and paint it onto the materials. While this made the material more flexible than simply coating it with linseed oil, more R&D was to come.

In the decades to follow, all these textile and refinishing mills would figure out a way to infuse the densely woven cotton canvas with paraffin, a waxy substance derived from petroleum. The benefit of paraffin, as opposed to linseed oil, was its excellent waterproofing properties, its ability to sweat vapor, and its tendency not to become stiff when melded with the fabric. Paraffin also didn’t yellow as it aged like linseed oil.


Halley Stevenson Factory, est. 1864
Halley Stevenson Factory today with waxed canvas rolls ready for shipment

By the end of the 19th century, cotton finishing company British Millerain had nearly perfected their own paraffin-based waxed canvas. 

British Millerain workers via B.M. archives

 

British Millerain 140 year anniversary sticker via B.M. archives

Realizing the superiority of their pioneering wax treatments, Francis Webster Ltd. and other European textile mills began sending their woven and dyed canvas to British Millerain Co. Ltd., who would eventually provide the world with the first supply of paraffin-based waxed canvas for apparel. It was good timing because these large sailing vessels, with their huge expanses of canvas sails, had been losing ground to the quicker steamships since the Civil War. 

One of our very first Waxed Canvas items, the No. 196 Messenger/Game Bag. Launched in 2003.  The one above is used by our uncle, an avid outdoor and fishing enthusiast. Photo from 2014
Billykirk bags made with Plaid British Millerain Waxed Canvas, Fall 2005 & Fall 2010
OD waxed canvas with water droplets

While the days of large, cumbersome sails were numbered, the treated canvas innovations that were invented would soldier on. By the 1870s, forward-thinking companies like Helly Hansen were winning awards for their waterproof oilskin jackets, trousers, Sou’westers (hats), and tarpaulins made from coarse flax linen and coated in wax made from dried linseed oil.

In 1894, British clothing company J. Barbour & Sons, known today as Barbour, began to make their own version of oilskin material. These “Beacon Brand” oilskins that Barbour produced through the turn of the century were popular with farmers into the teens.

Barbour's Beacon brand label

Just like the linseed-soaked sails centuries earlier, the oilskin fabric became rigid and stiff in the cold and yellowed over time. It would be another 15 years before Barbour and others would perfect waxed canvas for apparel.

Barbour Beacon advert

Barbour Factory, 1940's via South Tyneside Council
Barbour factory floor

Just prior to WWI, an industrious Latvian chap named Eli Belovitch put his weatherproofing and fabric development experience into establishing a factory in Manchester, focusing on reclaimed fabrics and rubber. As WWI got underway, the British Army asked Eli to produce waterproof capes, groundsheets, tents, and other equipment for the cold and damp trenches the soldiers were enduring.

In 1924, Eli went into partnership with his nephew and son-in-law Harry Grosberg. They named their company Bellstaff — a combination of Belovitch and Staffordshire where the new company was located. Note the extra “l,” which remained until the 1930s.

Belstaff Factory, 1965. Photo Lovatt Collection
Belstaff factory advert

By then, Belstaff was manufacturing protective, waterproof clothing for the growing motorbike industry using expertise gained during the war years. They claim to be the first company to use waxed canvas in the manufacturing of waterproof apparel for motorcycling — perfect timing in the era before it became affordable to own motorcars.

Motorcyclist wearing Belstaff, 1939 via Belstaff archives

During the 1920s and 1930s, advancements in chemistry and science led to the development of new mineral- and petroleum-based waxes, with higher melting points and different characteristics. This emerging technology put Barbour and Belstaff in the game as they helped usher in a new generation of treated canvas users. While Barbour appealed to gentry, farmers, and gamekeepers, Belstaff appealed more to sporting enthusiasts, like intrepid sailors and aviators.

Adventurer and pilot, D.H. Lawrence wearing Belstaff via Library of Congress

Both companies enjoyed great success with motorcyclists.  In fact, for three decades, Barbour supplied British international motorcycling teams with one-piece waxed suits, the “Barbour International.” They have also outfitted the Household Cavalry Polo Team for nearly two decades.  And, of course, both brands have the distinction of having outfitted one of America’s favorite icons of cool: Steve McQueen.

Barbour Wearing Motorcyclists via Barbour archives
Steve McQueen wearing his Barbour International Suit, 1964
Steve McQueen wearing Belstaff in the movie, Cincinnati Kid, 1965
 Simon Crompton's well-worn Barbour Jacket via Permanent Style

During WWII, waxed canvas was the British armed forces fabric of choice because it performed far better than the non-breathable rubber outerwear from the previous World War. 

Lt Cdr Philips wearing his Barbour Ursula suit, 1939

After the war, a lot of surplus waxed canvas military clothing and gear was sold off to Army & Navy shops, which gave this storied and time-tested material another life both on the streets and for all sorts of outdoor pursuits like camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing. If you’re 40+ and your parents took you camping when you were a kid, you were likely sleeping under waxed canvas. 

From the high seas to high street, the lore and evolution of waxed canvas is almost as enticing as the material itself.  I know we’ve been enthralled with it since slogging through duck blinds in southern Minnesota as teenagers.

With the exception of leather and raw selvedge denim, few materials take on the character and patina that waxed canvas does. While it does require a bit of TLC now and again, we wouldn't change a thing.

Billykirk No. 479 Khaki Waxed Canvas Carryall, Joshua Tree, CA Photo by Sara Combs, 2020

 

 

 

The Thornproof Wool Collection

The Thornproof Wool Collection

Unlike other tweeds, thornproof wool is designed entirely for strength. With our thornproof designs, we endeavored to make an elegant, understated collection that could maintain a dapper appearance even under the worst conditions. Two heritage materials with highly utilitarian backgrounds may seem unlikely candidates for an elegant collection, but when together, they reflect the beauty in what some may consider rugged.

Abraham Moon & Sons, Thornproof Wool

Abraham Moon & Sons Factory in Leeds, England. Built in 1868

 

Our thornproof wool was woven by Abraham Moon & Sons, a mill founded in 1837 in northern Leeds. With their nearly 180-year history of weaving woolen fabrics, Moon is considered one of the finest mills in the U.K.. Their impressive repertoire includes “British Redcoat Wool” and “Royal Airforce Blue,” materials iconic of Britain’s military. With frequent visits from the Royal Family, Moon continues to be a symbol of British quality in textiles.

 

Left: Thornproof two-fold twisted yarns on spools Right: Thornproof yarn feeding into loom

 

Founded in the heyday of tweeds, Moon makes a thornproof unrivaled by other mills. The term “thornproof” has historically been defined two ways and made as such. One was a coarsely woven wool that, when punctured by thorns, could easily be smoothed out. This would prevent permanent holes from forming in the fabric. The other was a wool woven with two yarns tightly twisted together (making a yarn that’s much stronger and less likely to fray). The tight weave and exceptionally strong yarn prevented thorns from piecing the fabric and kept it safe from sharp scratches and abrasion. The thornproof we chose for this collection is the latter. It’s extremely high-quality yarn and weave make it not only able to withstand far more than the average tweed, it also allows it to maintain an exceptionally new appearance.

 

Left: Mill operator inspecting weave quality Right: Rapier loom weaving a tartan

 

Horween Leather Company, Waxed Flesh Leather

Horween Tannery in Bucktown, Chicago, 1940

 

The accent leather of this collection is a favorite of ours: waxed flesh. Made in Chicago by Horween Leather Company, waxed flesh can be traced back to WWII. At the time, Horween was the official supplier of leather for the U.S. Marine Corps., using an iconic leather they invented in 1913: Chromexcel. This historic leather, with its fibrous flesh side facing outward (referred to as "roughout" by the U.S. military), was made into boots (“Service Shoe w/ Reverse Upper,” “Combat Service Boot,” and “N1 Field Shoes”). A naturally water-resistant leather, marines and soldiers who received the boots would then coat the exterior in Dubbin (a mixture of natural waxes and oils) to further the boots’ water resistance. By saturating the fibers in wax and slicking them down, the leather was able to withstand the drying effects that water can have on vegetable-tanned leathers (for more info on vegetable tanning, see here) for much longer.

 

Left: U.S. military wearing M1943 Roughout Infantry Boots Right: Original M1943 Infantry Boots

 

So enticed by the beauty of this utilitarian leather, Horween began making the material themselves. Waxed flesh is the same Chromexcel leather with Dubbin professionally applied by the tannery. Coating the hide while still flat, Horween is able to apply a perfect slick to the fibers. Black pigment in the waxing of the leather gives the flesh side a unique appearance, as only the top-most layer is colored while the rest of the leather remains undyed.

These two materials were originally created to withstand the harshness of nature, their elegance was a side effect. We say it often, but only because we truly believe it: form follows function. We set out to make a travel collection that would withstand years of use. In doing so, something elegant began to emerge.

With a limit on the availability of these two highly unique materials, we are offering a pre-order sale until Oct. 4. Following that, we cannot confirm the availability of any of these pieces. Click here to see our pre-order deals.

 

Happy Trails!

 

What is Natural Leather?

What is Natural Leather?

Custom Valet Tray made for Lafayette Restaurant and Bakery in 2013.

 

What makes leather so special? Of course it’s durable, can stand up to daily wear and tear, and survive extreme weather. But isn’t the best part of owning a leather belt or wallet how it looks after a couple of years of use? Don’t we love seeing the things we buy become uniquely ours? Here at Billykirk, we strive to create pieces that not only stand the test of time, but get better with age. The marks and scuffs, the discoloration, the quirks that a leather piece picks up throughout its journey all tell a story about its owner, where they’ve gone and how they’ve lived.

Now let’s get down to it: We love natural vegetable-tanned leather. Although they don’t always sell as well as their black and brown-dyed brethren, we continue to offer a natural version of almost every product we make. We’ve always seen it was a critical part of our offering at Billykirk. When it comes to aging gracefully and developing that beautiful patina, nothing performs like well made, natural veg-tanned leather.

 

Photographer Scott Rounds' six-year-old No. 155 Card Case, made with Freeman Transport Bikes (now defunct).
"It's been with me to the hospital, it's seen a couple run-ins with the cops. It has been to the motorcycle races, and sunny days on a blanket in the park. There isn't any other single thing that I've handled and used every day for five years." - Scott

 

Vegetable tanned leather is made using an age-old process that utilizes tannins and ingredients found in plant-life. The most common ingredients are tree barks and leaves, but can even include fruits and roots. The hide’s final color may vary slightly in color, tone, and darkness depending on the mix of materials used in the process. Unlike chrome tanning, which uses a combination of minerals, acids, and carcinogenic salts to tan leather quickly, the vegetable tanning process can take up to 60 days to produce a useable hide.

 

Ben Ferencz's (of FairEnds) No. 109 Skinny Belt. Made in 2008, when we reached out to him confirming this was indeed his belt, he immediately responded with a shot of him wearing it. It's been two years since the above photo was taken, and the belt's looking better than ever.

 

Vegetable tanned leather is made using an age-old process that utilizes tannins and ingredients found in plant-life. The most common ingredients are tree barks and leaves, but can even include fruits and roots. The hide’s final color may vary slightly in color, tone, and darkness depending on the mix of materials used in the process. Unlike chrome tanning, which uses a combination of minerals, acids, and carcinogenic salts to tan leather quickly, the vegetable tanning process can take up to 60 days to produce a useable hide.

The most noticeable trait of newly finished veg-tan leather is its strikingly light color. Because it never dyed, the finished leather tends to be a very light tan or pinkish white and can show marks acquired in the hide during the animal’s life, such as scars or insect bites. These organic markings contribute to the unique aesthetic of each and every natural hide that we use to make a bag, card case, or belt.

 

A new No. 154 Tri-fold Wallet compared to web developer, Chip Cracraft's 2014 wallet.

 

But how does this light, pale material develop that deep, dark brown patina we strive for? The answer is surprisingly simple: Use it! The oils in your hands, the dirt and dust outside, the indigo dye in your jeans, even sunlight itself will all contribute to a great-looking patina over time. Like our own skin, veg-tan leather tends to take on characteristics of its environment. Leave your new natural wallet in the sun for a few hours and that pale white color will quickly turn a golden tan. Rub it down with a little bit of leather conditioner and it will quickly absorb the moisture and darken in color. Establishing this base tan can give your patina significantly more depth and substance as it develops, those differences in use and care are what give natural leather so much character.

While the best way for leather to age is through heavy use, establishing a maintenance schedule for natural leather goods is imperative. Because natural leather is technically “unfinished” and lacks many of the oils and waxes that go into producing dyed leathers, it tends to lose its oil content faster and show wear and tear more dramatically. If neglected, it’s not uncommon to notice natural leather stiffening, cracking, or feeling dry to the touch. To combat this, we recommend periodically cleaning and conditioning your natural leathers with a good conditioner like Skidmore’s. Dry leather will soak up oils and conditioners very quickly, temporarily changing color and becoming noticeably softer and more supple. How often you “feed” your leathers is a matter of personal preference, but even just taking the time once or twice a year should help them last a lifetime.

 

Chip Cracraft's No. 154 Tri-fold Wallet interior & exterior. Made in 2014, you can see how the exterior leather of Chip's wallet developed a much stronger patina than the interior. Frequent contact with the oil of his skin and pocket have given the wallet a pronounced appearance.

 

The beauty of natural leather is that no two persons’ pieces will ever look alike. Like a good pair of jeans, you’ll see yourself and your adventures reflected in your natural leather goods more and more with age. As your belt or wallet wears and changes, as it molds to fit your pocket or waist, it becomes a part of you. This heirloom quality is something that has always inspired us: the attachment you feel toward a wallet you’ve carried every day for years, or the bag that’s been your daily driver as long as you can remember.

Our goal has long been to create pieces that can be enjoyed and well-worn by their owners, then passed down and passed on for others to cherish. When properly cared for, natural leather can last multiple lifetimes. It is a truly unique material that embodies what Billykirk and leather enthusiasts love about artisan craft. We make each piece not only as a gift to you, but those you may pass it on to.

Photo's by Tatsuro Nishimura

Leather Tanning Techniques

 

Ever wonder what makes leather different from a decomposing body? It’s a technique used for thousands of years, invented and reinvented by cultures throughout human history. Today, only a handful of tanning methods are still used in the production of cow-hide leather, each with their own pros and cons.

Today, almost every variation of leather found in the market stems from these three techniques...

 

 

All leathers begin in the same process of basic preservation and cleaning. The process removes moisture from the hide, cleans off any hair and tissue, and establishes its pH. The prepped hide then moves to the tanning stage where the quality, appearance, and characteristics are determined.

There are two main techniques of tanning that define nearly all leather used today. Tanning is the process of permanently altering the hide's protein structure to make it less vulnerable to decomposition. This is the step that converts a hide to leather.

 

Tanned, natural hides in storage before going into the finishing process

 

1) Vegetable Tanning

Also known as veg-tanning, this natural process predates Ancient Rome and Egypt. Made by impregnating the hide with natural tannins, it can take up to sixty days to complete this initial step on a single skin.

Tannins are naturally occurring molecules found in most plants (it’s what makes red wine dry and unripened fruit tart). In leather manufacturing, these tannins are sourced from tree barks and leaves - which are ground to speed up the extraction process. Trees like chestnut, oak, and hemlock have long been used in this process. Recipes of these materials are closely guarded secrets of each tannery, giving each its own unique style of leather.

 

Natural hides stretched on racks and submerged in tannin baths

 

The hides are then stretched on racks and submerged for several weeks. Over the weeks the hides are progressively moved into vats of higher tannin concentration, resulting in a very strong, evenly tanned leather.

Once complete, the leather is in its natural color. This color is the most susceptible to color change as there are no dyes to mask the oils and UV rays it comes into contact with. To make tan, brown, black, and other colors, the natural leather is drum dyed to achieve the desired color. These colors take time to penetrate the skin, and in some cases only color the exterior sides, leaving the flesh in-between a light, natural color.

 

 

Veg-tanned leather has a natural stiffness that allows pieces to stand up to heavy wear and tear. The leather can also be “stuffed” with natural oils, resins, and/or waxes to make it more supple and give it unique characteristics. This process allows veg-tan leathers to naturally biodegrade if disposed of.

*The long history of natural leather tanning means there are a lot of wild stories and techniques, all that have had an impact on the culture of the modern leather industry. We’ll follow up with another post on these soon*

 

 

2) Chrome Tanning

Invented in 1858, chrome tanning is the process of tanning hides in chromium sulfate and other chromium salts, rather than natural tannins. Rather than weeks, this process can be completed in a day, resulting in a much more affordable leather. When the tanning process is complete, chrome tanned hides are a light blue (referred to as wet blue), a result of the chromium held within the hide. The chromium neutralizes all tonal variation in the skin to this light blue, reducing the appearance of natural marks to near zero.

 

Chrome hides being split to achieve even thickness

 

The tanned hides are then drum dyed, however, unlike veg-tanned leather, chrome tanned leather picks up dyes very quickly. This allows for the color to quickly penetrate the skin and fully color its flesh (known as “struck through”).

The final leather is a very soft, supple leather with moderate stretch. While it lends well to certain bags and clothing, it often needs extra support from other materials to maintain its shape and keep it from stretching.

 

 

Chrome Tanning is often considered a high pollutant process due to the high volumes of non-deteriorating chemicals used, however, some tanneries have go to great lengths to minimize their impact. Closed system water cycles allow some tanneries to clean and reuse water with additives like chromium sulfate still present, creating a system in which little to no chemicals are wasted. Unfortunately, these systems are very expensive and thus very rare, making it difficult to source and verify chrome tanned leather made this way.

 

 

3) Latigo Tanning

Latigo leather is created by blending the processes of vegetable and chrome tanning. By first chrome tanning then vegetable tanning, the leather takes on a very flexible quality without becoming stretchy. A useful material in horse tack, Latigo is generally made in heavier weights for straps and belts. Due to its weight and mixed manufacturing method, Latigo is often the most expensive process of tanning cow-hide.

 

Worker prepping Cordovan shells

 

Since our inception, we’ve used countless leather varieties within the vegetable and latigo tanning classifications. Each has had its own strengths, weaknesses, and overall character. The hunt for perfect leather has led us to an important realization, there is no one perfect leather. While some are especially good for one purpose, they may fail in another. Balance is the key to optimal performance, and finding the correct quality for each need is the only way to make the best leather goods.

 

*All images are courtesy of Horween Tannery