Don't just stop at raincoats—make most of your seasonal outerwear waterproof with a time-honored technique that doesn't require hefty needlework.

By Eleni Gage and Zee Krstic
September 19, 2019
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Peter Ardito

It may be hard to imagine, but the synthetic fabrics and speciality materials that make your rain jackets waterproof and your workout gear wick moisture away didn't exist until the mid-20th century. Before then, craftsmen had to waterproof their own clothing, using grease and other animal byproducts to keep their outerwear as dry as possible throughout the seasons. In the early 1900s, mariners became especially interested in fabric wax, which led to the advent of waterproof and windproof canvas sails that weren't too stiff; they later created jackets out of the same material. Shortly after, manufacturers began applying the same technique to tents, hunting jackets and pants, satchels, outdoor gear and cases, and even some furniture. 

Judith Martin, the vice president of Fairfield Textile in New Jersey, the oldest family-owned waxed cotton manufacturers in the United States, says people today choose waxed canvas and heavy-duty cotton for the rugged look rather than utilitarian need. "There's a broader appeal to waxed items, from waxed bags to things for the home, like chairs," she says. Many waxed items today are manufactured and purchased pre-made—but there's a simple method for upgrading a favorite jacket or a pair of shoes to repeal water, just like the one the mariners used in the 1900s.

Martha Stewart Living Editor-at-Large Naomi deMañana says that outerwear, footwear, and accessories made of cotton or other natural fibers can be instantly treated using modern fabric wax. Taking inspiration from stylish waxed-canvas field jackets, deMañana gives any relevant gear the same weatherproof polish with a few simple swipes of a fabric-wax bar. She likes Otter Wax Heavy-Duty Fabric Wax bars.

Related: Our Complete Guide to Safeguarding All of Your Interior Surfaces

Before you attempt to wax your entire item, work the bar into a small, inconspicuous area to test it: The material will turn slightly darker and shinier. All good? Keep scrubbing, getting into seams with the bar's corners and pressing it in with your fingers. "The wax gives material a vintage, lived-in look," deManana says. Before heading outside in the elements, let the item cure for 24 to 72 hours—Martin suggests using the warm air option on a hair dryer to ensure wax is locked in place if you need to wear the item sooner rather than later.

For best results, make sure you're treating the right fabric. "You want to put a wax finish on cotton or wool...or items that are tightly woven, because something like burlap wouldn't be able to hold the wax properly," says Martin. "But beware that it adds weight to fibers, so that it may become too heavy for your taste." 

You'll notice that the wax finish is impacted by everyday movement, with the item's original color peeking through in the weeks and months following, which makes it an impractical choice for everyday items like t-shirts or denim jeans. For best results, you'll need to re-treat the surface every season or so to keep colors uniform; don't wash or dry clean any waxed clothing, as detergents can alter the item's finish, Martin says. "You're best bet is to hose it off—whether it's a jacket or a pair of canvas shoes—and hang it up and dry it out thoroughly."

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