Ventile, the Magical Waterproof Fabric That Time Forgot

By Bulent Yusuf on at

If you were to poke your nose around the door of some fashionable London boutiques  -- Howies, Albam, Fred Perry - you might encounter a jacket made with a mysterious material called “Ventile”. First developed for the World War II, this stuff is waterproof, windproof and 100 per cent breathable, which makes it perfect for the unpredictable British weather.

The secret of Ventile is the super-dense weave of the natural cotton fabric, which expands when it comes into contact with water. When dry, it has all the feel and weight of normal cotton. But the minute those rainclouds appear to unleash their fury, Ventile is transformed into a performance fabric, where the individual fibres swell up and lock out any further moisture from seeping through. It’s impressive technology, doubly so because the effect is achieved without laminating or coating the cotton with any artificial chemicals.

 

Saving Lives

Ventile was first introduced by the RAF during World War II, where a practical solution was needed for airmen who’d bailed out of their planes over the sea. If they were anti-submarine pilots flying over the Arctic Ocean, for example, the freezing cold water would reduce their life expectancy to a matter of minutes. Airmen were dying from exposure before they could be rescued.

What was needed was a way to delay the water from seeping into the pilot’s suit, buying them a few extra precious moments while they waited to be rescued. After a series of trials, the military boffins came up with a fabric called Ventile, whose water resilience meant that life expectancy in the same conditions were significantly prolonged to a least 20 minutes. Of those pilots who were subsequently plunged into the Arctic seas, 80 per cent of them would survive.

The fabric was a proven success, but this wasn’t actually the reason why Ventile was developed in the first place. In the 1930s, it was originally intended to be a substitute material in the construction of fire-hoses. At the time, fire-hoses were traditionally made from flax fibres, but Germany had considerable control of flax production, which meant that London during the Blitz would potentially have a shortage of the necessary equipment.

After the war, Ventile became the material of choice for some of the world’s greatest climbers and explorers, from Sir Edmund Hillary to Ranulph Fiennes. And usage wasn’t limited to their jackets either, it was used in the construction of tents for Arctic expeditions, too.

 

Fading into Obscurity

So what happened? If Ventile was so great, why did it fall out of fashion? A big part of the reason was because it’s practically impossible to mass-produce. The cotton used to manufacture Ventile is selected from long stable fibres, which is only found in the top 2 per cent of the world’s cotton crop. On the factory floor, it takes 16 hours just to set up the machine with the necessary 24,000 strands of cotton to weave the fabric.

Consequently, Ventile is considered prohibitively expensive for the high-street, especially when the same weatherproofing effect can be achieved cheaper with the likes of Gore-Tex. But that also meant that a uniquely British invention had been consigned to the history books. Until now.

The modern revival first kicked off with the bushcraft brigade. Those sneaky survivalists were looking for a performance material that didn’t rustle when they were crawling through the undergrowth. They wanted to remain undetected by the wildlife, and Ventile proved ideal. Shortly after, British sporting label Howies refashioned the material as the perfect garment for all-weather cycling. From there, Ventile began to pop up with increasing regularity in men’s outerwear fashions.

And if you’ve got the cash, you can also buy yourself a faithful replica of the parka worn by Sir Edmund Hillary on his Antarctic and Everest expeditions. Made with 100% cotton Ventile outer fabric, handstuffed with goosedown, lined with sheepskin and coyote fur-trim, and finished off with Riri zipper and wooden toggle buttons. Yours for a bank account busting £2,099 from Nigel Cabourn.

 

Celebrity Fans

Ventile isn’t widely known outside of the UK. But ironically, one of its biggest fans might well be former US President George W. Bush. When cyberpunk auteur William Gibson was asked on his site about his obsession with brands and clothing, he responded:

“It's not about clothes, though, or branding; it's about code, subtext. I was really delighted, for instance, to learn who made George Bush's raincoats. A company in Little Rock (now extinct, alas) but they were made of Ventile, a British cotton so tightly woven that you can make fire hoses (and RAF ocean survival suits) out of it. Which exists because Churchill demanded it, because the Germans had all the flax production sewn up. No flax, no fire hoses for the Blitz. The cultural complexities that put that particular material on Bush's back delight me deeply; it's a kind of secret history (and not least because most people would find it fantastically boring, I imagine).”

So there you have it, folks. If you like your clothes to be steeped in a little bit of the old secret history, put a Ventile garment on your shopping list. If you can find one in the shops, that is.

Image Credit: Nigel Cabourn