As long as there has been rain, humans have been trying to avoid it. In our long relationship with precipitation, we’ve come up with inventive ways to keep ourselves dry (see: the umbrella, a contraption that dates back several millennia) and there now exists a sea of water-resistant fabrics to keep the stuff at bay. It’s evolved from fish oils and blubber (food as fashion!) to rubberized coats to futuristic three-layer techwear — each of them has its advantages and disadvantages. When you’re considering your next piece of outerwear, here’s what you need to know.
Waxed and Oiled Fabrics
Waxed fabrics first came on the slippery scene when European sailors discovered that wet sails performed better than dry sails. Applying fish oil (and eventually linseed oil) to the sailcloth resulted in sails that were equally efficient but significantly lighter than water-soaked sails. When sails began to wear down, the cloth was then repurposed as waterproof clothing. Today, waxed cotton fabrics are mostly made from paraffin, silicone, beeswax or soy-based oils.
- Long-lasting. With proper maintenance, waxed cotton fabrics have been known to last for years and even decades.
- Better with age. Waxed cotton fabrics develop a highly desirable patina, not unlike that of a well-faded pair of indigo-dyed blue jeans whereas synthetic technical fabrics keep their color and merely break down.
- Easily reparable. Because waxed fabrics are made with, for the most part, natural materials, they are easier to repair, lengthening the product’s lifespan. Synthetic materials and proprietary materials are more difficult to repair once they are damaged which lowers a products longevity.
- Heavy. Though sailors found an oiled sail to be lighter than water-soaked sails, oilcloth is noticeably heavier than their tech-forward counterparts and is a big reason why you don’t see more outdoor sports enthusiasts wearing them.
- Not as waterproof as other materials. As helpful as waxed fabrics can be in shedding rain, technologically has come a long way and has far surpassed the original waterproof fabric.
Long Haul Jacket by Taylor Stitch $188
Ashby Jacket by Barbour $415
Fieldmaster Jacket by Belstaff $595
Oilcloth Parka by Comme Des Garçons Homme $1360
Rubberized fabrics were developed by Charles Macintosh in the early 1800s. The Scottish chemist found a way to use rubber — harvested from the milk of rubber trees — to waterproof cotton fabrics, and the rainproof coat we know simply as a “Mac” was born. Today, Mackintosh still makes its coats the same way, but advancements in rubberized fabrics have spawned variations. While more traditional rubberized coats like Mackintosh use rubber material sandwiched between two layers of fabric, other coats are made with either plastic coating (either PVC or Polyurethane) sprayed onto fabric.
- Highly waterproof. Rubberized fabrics are well-known for their waterproof capabilities and are notably more waterproof than waxed fabrics.
- Heavy and stiff. Rubberized fabrics tend to be heavier and have a stiff drape, making them uncomfortable for many people. Vinyl and other plastic-coated fabrics tend to be lighter and have a lighter drape than their rubberized counterparts, however.
- Low breathability. Rubberized fabrics, while extremely waterproof, lack breathability.
- Rubber eventually dries out and is irreparable. Over time, the rubber will lose its moisture and degrade. Though the hydrophobic coatings applied to rubberized and vinyl coats can be re-applied, damaged garments are more difficult to repair.
- Synthetics. Rainproof rubber and vinyl garments are coated with synthetic coatings which have been linked to harmful toxins.
EVA Adult Poncho by Red Ledge $7
Waterproof Hooded Long Rain Jacket by Rains $125
Stockholm Rain Coat by Stutterheim $295
Dunoon Classic Mac by Mackintosh $1119
The next evolution of waterproof materials came in 1969 with Gore-Tex. Building upon the layered designs of Mackintosh, Gore-Tex fabric was made of a membrane with pores small enough to prevent water droplets from penetrating but large enough to let water vapor escape. An exterior layer added a protective barrier between the elements and the delicate membrane while a soft inner layer bookended it for comfort. There are variations on this basic concept, each of which vary in its waterproofness and breathability.
- Extremely waterproof. Advancements in fabric technology has resulted in unprecedented waterproof capabilities.
- Breathable. These technological leaps in fabrics have also resulted in fabrics that repel rain while also remaining highly breathable, an elusive balance fabric developers continue to improve upon.
- Lightweight. Technical fabrics manage to shed water and weight. The combination of waterproofness, breathability and lightweight characteristics make products like Gore-Tex and eVent ideal for highly active outdoors sports like skiing and hiking.
- Lower durability. As far as technology has come, technical fabrics will not last nearly as long as waxed cotton fabric. A technical fabric’s DWR coating can be re-activated and re-applied with time, but because they’re made using synthetic materials, they can’t be repaired easily. Their lightweight characteristics also contribute to their lack of durability.
- Synthetic. Synthetic materials tend to be more difficult to repair as so much of the fabric is proprietary.
Minimalist Gore-Tex Waterproof Hooded Jacket by Marmot $189
Cloud Ridge Jacket by Patagonia $249
Gore-Tex Soutien Collar Coat by Nanamica $665
Packable Garment-Dyed Gore-Tex Hooded Jacket by Stone Island $1030
Five experts explain the difference between waterproof breathable technologies: Gore-Tex Pro, NeoShell, eVent, Schoeller c_change and Dermizax NX Read the Story
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