Ventile, the ugly facts they don’t tell you

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Four years ago I posted a pretty critical piece about a fabric that at the time was on the brink of enjoying something of a comeback. The main point of the article was that the historical facts that were being bandied about might not actually be as historical as they were made out to be. There was much talk of RAF immersion suits saving the lives of fighter pilots that ended up in the cold sea, but research failed to turn up much in the way of actual evidence for this claim. In fact, Ventile didn’t seem all that big a deal. You can read the original article here.

In this article I want to make 3 points. These relate to the environment, to marketing and the alternative. Please pay attention.

Since my first article was posted, Ventile has increased massively in popularity, so much so that it’s just about everywhere at the moment.  More and more brands are using it, the same story is still being retold and the legend seemingly lives on. Oh, and the “Made in Britain” movement has embraced it.

The first point that really bugs me is the claims made for the eco friendliness of the fabric. As the story goes, Ventile works by the cotton fibres swelling up and making it waterproof. This means the fabric gets wet, and when wet no more water will pass through. Now this sounds well and good, although this is probably not what your average consumer wants. A wet jacket is a wet jacket and a wet jacket is not very pleasant, even though there may be no more water coming through once it’s wet. What works for a fire-hose might not be as suitable for a raincoat, right? And damp cotton surely can’t be much of a problem for the environment. Or can it?

No doubt that Ventile makes the water gather in droplets, but why does this happen?

No doubt that Ventile makes the water gather in droplets, but why does this happen?

The enviroment

So how does Ventile really work? Well, facts on the table, it’s treated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellant). This effectively kills all claims of Ventile being the eco-friendly outdoors fabric and also renders much of the historical facts null and void. Not just any DWR either, but fluorocarbons (PFC’s), which are now becoming known as genuinely nasty chemicals. From the website Greenpeace have set up on this topic:

“Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals are a family of man-made, fluorine-containing chemicals with unique properties to make materials stain resistant and waterproof. PFCs are incredibly resistant to breakdown; some have the potential to remain in the environment for hundreds of years after being released. They are turning up in unexpected places around the world. These pollutants have been found in secluded mountain lakes and snow, they’ve been discovered in the livers of polar bears in the Arctic and even in human blood.”

These C8 fluorocarbons are also strongly linked to some forms of cancer and have a half-life of between 4 and 8 years, so even if we stopped using them today, they’ll linger on for some time. The industry is hard at work replacing these long chain compounds with an alternative, shorter chain compounds  called C6, which although they don’t work as well and spread even easier than the long chain ones are are still legal to use. Ah, it’s such a familiar game, right? Also, even if the C6 fluorocarbons turn out to be benign, they are apparently so polluted by C8 that there is little actual difference when used.

Side note: Greenpeace are running a Detox Outdoor campaign with regards to PFC’s in outdoors clothing. They are following up a number of manufacturers, wanting them to commit to phasing out PFC’s before 2020. It’s quite a paradox that Patagonia, currently darling of saving the planet is listed as “Out of the race” in this respect. 

The marketing

Another major selling point of Ventile has been that’s it’s a British fabric. Invented in Britain, made in Britain, sold as British. Only, it’s kind of not really all that British now and hasn’t been for a while. According to Wikipedia it hasn’t been made in Britain since before 2000. You will notice how cagey the Ventile labels are though, using words such as “developed in” or “originally woven in”, where they really really want you to understand it as “made in Britain”. These days it’s actually made by a Swiss company called Stotz as their “etaProof” brand, and then re-branded for the Ventile-hungry market. They don’t make any mention of it being treated with fluorocarbons on their website either.

Developed by... As used by... Originally woven in...

Developed by… As used by… Originally woven in…

I contacted Stotz and they confirmed that the production of Ventile is three processes, where spinning has taken place since the early 1980s in Switzerland, weaving since 1999 in Switzerland and dyeing/finishing since the 1970s in Switzerland and Austria. No small wonder the Ventile labels have the fuzzy “Developed in England since 1943” text.

In an odd occurrence of cosmic synchronicity, Ventile UK announced last week that Stotz were taking over the supply of Ventile. Hmm.

I have asked many of the companies currently making garments from Ventile what type of Ventile they use and whether it has been treated with fluorocarbons. Every single one has shrugged and pointed to the official line or something along the lines of “Yeah, the cotton swells like, used for fire-hoses and immersion suits, proper lifesaver! Awecome!”. Indeed.

Notice how sneaky this label is? Developed in Britain, but not in any way implying that it is made in Britain...

Notice how sneaky this label is? Developed in Britain, but not in any way implying that it is made in Britain…

The alternative

Ah, but there is a final redeeming point! Stotz also make an alternative “organic” version of their “Ventile”. This is made using organically grown cotton and is treated with a paraffin wax, in effect making it more like a traditional waxed cotton. Two issues here: The wax coating is less effective for treating outdoors fabric than DWR-treated traditional “Ventile”. And: Isn’t paraffin also hydrocarbons? There is a definitive trade-off here though and I would strongly suggest that if you want Ventile, make sure you are getting the more environmentally sound organic variant. If the maker even knows what type they are using.

I have only found one company using this organic Ventile, Danish Dedenroth. They are admirable not only for taking a strong environmental stance, but also making their jackets in Denmark.

 

UPDATE: I contacted Stotz and they say they have stopped using C8 and only use C6 now. They can offer the waxed treatment on both the organic version and the regular variants of the fabric.

 

Further reading:

My first post on Ventile

Grough Magazine have published a masterclass titled “Waterproof clothing and fluorocarbons – What you need to know about your beloved jacket”. Read it.

Gary S. Selwyn, PhD “C6, C8 and See No Evil

NikWax also have a good article about the fluorocarbon issues.

 

 

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23 Comments

  • Keith Douglas 20/05/2017 at 11:39

    This is genuinely very interesting, as I have been looking to replace my Gore Tex jacket with something more natural looking, and Howies Winston jacket is made from Ventile. The name Winston, combined with Ventile’s Spitfire pilot dunked in the English channel (but still dry)image is an appealing one for an older chap like me. I will think again……….

    Reply
  • John P 20/05/2017 at 12:59

    Nick, I think Adidas also used the alternative in some of the Spezial range in the last couple of years, can’t remember which piece it was though.
    On a different level the pollution caused by the denim industry is insane and the stories told by makers are full of half truths and hyperbole, China makes some great denim and loads of shit throwaway stuff too but it all adds up. https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/6283-The-denim-capital-of-the-world-so-polluted-you-can-t-give-the-houses-away

    Reply
    • nick 20/05/2017 at 13:34

      Thank’s John! We’ll have to look at one fabric at a time, though I agree denim is a bad case!

      Reply
  • Holdfast 25/06/2017 at 09:18

    The Ventile WW2 story is a very appealing one, but no account I have read aside from the one here makes any mention of chemicals being used, just the semi magical properties of the cotton. A similar hype and price surrounds Grenfell Cloth which I had a coat made from. Very nice it looked and felt, but waterproof, or windproof? Not really. Barbour wax jackets unless recoated virtually once a month are also similarly hopeless at keeping out the wet. In a strong downpour they go stiff and cold. The nicest looking vintage Barbours with their wonderful patinas have no water resistant properties at all. My most waterproof garment? An old wool and cotton gaberdine rain coat.

    Reply
    • nick 25/06/2017 at 09:26

      The fact that everyone keeps up the old hype and never mentions the iffy chemicals was what compelled med to write this piece. I did a previous one questioning the historical angle. I’m not out to get Ventile, just asking for some honesty. Grenfell cloth looks nice, but no experience with it.

      Reply
  • Gordon 21/07/2017 at 12:52

    I’m with you wanting much improved candor in marketing–not just Ventile and not just clothing, either. The references you gave at bottom were all extremely educational. My search for a good rain jacket is much better informed thanks to your article.

    Reply
  • Joseph 14/09/2017 at 10:26

    Indeed, the branding has long been very disingenuous. And the demise of the Lancashire mill is still available in news reports online from the 1990s. Some American brands even use the word ‘waterproof’ in their Ventile textile labels – which it isn’t (only weatherproof; not quite achieving a hydrostatic head measurement of 1000). Many apparel manufacturers are also keen to emphasize the rain-proof integrity but fail to mention that their product uses only a single layer (and not double, which is where Ventile achieves most of its reputation). Alternative companies rebranding the etaproof (“Ventile”) cotton have chosen to do so to move away from Ventile’s obsession with waterproofing? The material remains a fantastic functional cotton with many advantages over “ordinary” cotton but it is not a waterproof alternative to the dozens of modern textiles now available. “Duuton3” for example promotes the same material as a wonder cotton; not a wonder waterproof material. The material has long deserved a more sophisticated re-positioning. The Duuton brand attempts to prise the material away from the hunting/fishing and bush craft community (who obese about waterproofing) and promote its use more pragmatically amongst functional clothing, travel wear and even practical fashion. Ventile (aka etaproof) is a great fabric, for doing some things well, but as ever a dodgy USP claim and a slightly hazy misrepresentation has come close to killing its own brand name.

    Reply
  • Helen 25/09/2017 at 09:19

    Nick, you say “… Danish Dedenroth. They are admirable [for] making their jackets in Denmark.” For many small niche clothing companies it is not economically viable to make their clothes anywhere BUT their home country. Minimum orders and shipping costs from the better (producing superb quality) Chinese manufacturers removes this option for the small “start up”. Nothing to do with being “admirable”. I always smile when I see this narrative turned to their own PR advantage. I’ve lost count of the amount of brands which end up shipping from china once they’re big enough.

    Reply
    • nick 25/09/2017 at 10:51

      Hi Helen, no one is more cynical when it comes to this than I am, and yet I disagree with you. If you know the situation in Denmark, and really the rest of the Nordics, you’d realise that there is virtually no home textile industry. It’s all been sold to East Europe, and this is mainly where the smaller garment companies have their products made. Supporting a small local textile industry likely is more of a hassle and more expensive than having a factory in Latvia or Portugal produce, hence why I applaud supporting the local effort. And for me the “Made in Denmark” (and likewise “Made in Britain”) is a selling point. And yes, I know it’s not a simple made here or there question, what with companies actively masking the country of origin, finishing products to the exact requirements to achieve a certain country of production and so forth. In my country, Norway, there used to be a strong garment industry, now it’s almost all gone.

      Reply
      • Helen 25/09/2017 at 13:03

        All very fine points and on this occasion this ‘may’ be the case. I do bulk however at how often companies have their goods made locally simply for tiny production runs, being able to change designs quickly, talk directly to the manufacturer (to compensate for lack of knowledge) and not to have to hold stock is then palmed off as some sort of crusade and loyalty and even promote the notion that the production is automatically better quality (which it very often certainly is not). Listening to Monicle Eutreprenur podcasts is always full of companies having their goods made in local textile houses (e.g in East London) where the UK textile industry has equally been decimated, simply because it is their only option. They then market them at a premium claiming the U.K. manufacture needs paying for (on the complete myth that it shall be better quality). 99% of the time the whole we are proud to manufacture in {insert your country here} is a complete croc. Great, do it if you want to or have to but I resent the typical nonsense narrative that is then adopted. All too often it absolutely has nothing at all to do with being admirable. Thanks for reply – love your site!

        Reply
  • Kartturi 10/11/2017 at 13:03

    I salute this article in its inquisitiveness! As a side note, you didn’t really touch performance: I’d be keen to get some genuine feedback on that.

    You see, my reference point is a soon to be ten year old GoreTex hard shell that’s been with me through thick and thin and is now on it’s last legs. I’ve been looking for a replacement and after reading people wax all poetic about Fjällrävens G1000, about Paramo’s Analogy and Ventile, I’ve tried all but the last even going so far as to develop my own hot waxing method for G1000 to try and make it cash half the promises the marketing makes. All have failed to stand up to actual use; none other than the old-fashioned GoreTex has stood even close to a full hour in moderate to hard driving rain without leaking miserably. Since it seems I’m reasonably regularly in that position, I would expect a ‘weatherproof’ let alone waterproof garment to stand at least a few hours of constant rain.

    I’d be happy to switch, if there’s a product that is equal or better to GoreTex but it seems reviewers don’t often take their review samples out in the world to produce information that is useful for me or they are willing to compromise on performance much more than I am.

    Reply
    • nick 10/11/2017 at 13:17

      I have to confess to not owning a full jacket in Ventile, so I have no real world experience of how it handles hard rain. Various reports I’ve read indicate it needs to get sodden before it actually stops further water penetration (which doesn’t sound like a very comfortable prospect). I recently acquired a trekking jacket from Ebbelsen (shown on Instagram a few times now), this is made from Duutton, a close relative of Ventile. I’ve used this in the rain with decent results, though it hasn’t been a case of total immersion. I tend to think that total protection can only be found in materials that totally stop anything penetration, mainly in the form of rubberised cotton (either with the rubber on the outside, as seen on repro rainwear such as Stutterheim, or on the inside, as Mackintosh make it). The disadvantage here is that the while the rain stays out, it also means any damp generated on the inside also stays on the inside… Is there a perfect product? I’m truly not sure.

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      • Joseph 10/11/2017 at 15:03

        Kartturi – I read your notes with interest. Some quick points…

        1. Ventile is not waterproof
        2. Ventile garments are not claimed to be waterproof
        3. G1000 is not waterproof
        4. G1000 garments are not claimed to be waterproof
        5. With Goretex and cotton materials you are comparing oranges with apples (or even oranges with chocolate?)
        6. What you “expect” is a self imposed ideal and not related to what manufacturers are telling you
        7. We shouldn’t expect waterproof jackets to last up to 10 years?
        8. Ventile et al are fantastic for doing what they are designed for. If you want a waterproof garment you couldn’t do much better than heading down to JJB sports buying a cheap Karrimor jacket made of EVENT (very waterproof / very breathable) and then replacing it in 3 to 4 years time.

        Ventile is as this article explains another name used to brand etaProof cotton. The Wiki article this article references also points out that Duuton3 is also another name used to brand etaProof cotton. (Although this seems to easily confuse a lot of people)? People who forever “bang on about” or discuss, or puzzle-over how waterproof Ventile/Duuton3/etaProof is, always – and I mean always – fail to grasp the faintest notion that the best Ventile Jackets are made from two layers. Thats two. More than one. More than a single layer of the fabric. Two layers or double layer, is equal to two layers of the textile. As in double. As in twice the protection. Twin skin Ventile is much better at keeping out the wet as the outer layer protects the inner layer. A double layer Ventile jacket is very good at keeping the user inside dry. This is nothing to do with weather the fabric is waterproof?
        This is where Ventile has forged its reputation, but most garments on the market today (waxing lyrical about Ventile) use only a single layer as the material is not cheap. (It takes hours to make, uses extra-long staple fibers and uses a lot of them as the fabric is very dense). But it is extremely hard-wearing and can – as they say – last a lifetime.

        Ventile/Duuton3/etaProof is a fantastic functional and practical cotton used to make functional and practical outdoor garments made of cotton. If you want a waterproof garment, then choose from any of the HUNDREDS now available on the market. Ventile/Duuton3/etaProof feature the added benefit of providing decent weatherproofing on the unexpected occasions you are caught in the rain to a much greater standard than standard cotton. Its as simple as that.

        Thanks!

        Reply
        • nick 10/11/2017 at 15:40

          Good point regarding double layers, I had considered that. The Ebbelsen jacket is double layer.

          Reply
        • Kartturi 10/11/2017 at 22:58

          Good and fair points Joseph!

          Maybe it’s my own fault for believing the marketing copy in the first place, but from a functional perspective, if I buy something that’s said to be an all-weather general outdoors jacket/smock/parka, you’re (not you personally of course) not doing a good job at delivering that if I get wet and cold on every third outing. And after 20 years of outdoors, hiking, camping and such I’m decent at layering so I’m thinking it’s not just user error. I just might give Ventile another look if I come across an opportunity, but I might just take your advice and get another standard GoreTex or eVent shell and hope for the best.

          I also accept that 10 years is on the outside for the lifetime of such a product, It’s just that I’ve been very lucky with the one I have and I haven’t seen many things that would deliver me better performance for a decent price.

          As a side note, that’s actually a good question how long should we expect things to last? My intuition is that from an engineering or design standpoint, we should expect little less than ten years with good care, and at a minimum five, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Of course professional heavy use is a different matter.

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        • Kartturi 10/11/2017 at 23:07

          And a further point I forgot to add, is that what exacerbates the problem is that people who write about garments tend to wax lyrical rather than be explicit how well in what exact conditions a given product performs. I wouldn’t be so disappointed in G1000 for example if I wouldn’t have first read reviews that say it’s the best thing since sliced bread and then go on to experience something wildly different. It’s fine if a fabric or material is sort of mildly weatherproof for that brief shower that happens to pass on an otherwise overcast but maybe breezy day and dries quickly afterwards, but people should then say so directly, and perhaps go on to add that if you’re thinking of buying something that is for all-weather, then look for something else.

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          • Joseph 11/11/2017 at 10:56

            A good balanced perspective. Personally I love my ventile jacket as it’s comfortable to wear for a variety of days outdoors. On the occasions when the weather has become much more wet than exepected – such as a long walk around morecombe bay at Christmas – the double layer system kept me dry. The outer layer wetted out completely but the inner stayed dry. It became heavy and stiff and wouldn’t be ideal for serious use and I wouldn’t choose it if I was expecting rain, but it’s nice to know it’ll keep me dry if I needed it. For hill walking I use Dermizax NX (the nx part is important) as it’s waterproof and extremely breathable, but does not rely on pores, has some stretch, and is very tough. But Ventile in the 21st century should drop the whole waterproof thing. It’s much more weatherproof than ordinary cotton and can last decades. Its windproof and quiet and comfortable. It is a great cotton textile but it shouldn’t get involved in discussions about being waterproof. Nicks observations are correct – the Ventile brand has been a bit mischievous over the years.

  • John 20/11/2017 at 13:26

    Thank you for writing these so we can have a different perspective about Ventile. I found that some Ventile fabrics are also made in Japan by a company called Daiwabo. I really wonder how they are different from those made in Europe. Have you ever compared them?

    Reply
    • nick 20/11/2017 at 16:37

      Daiwabo is a new one to me, but I’m not surprised if there is a Japanese variantion of densely woven long-fiber cotton as well. Maybe we can cast the question out here? Has anyone else compared Daiwabo to Western Ventile variations?

      Reply
  • Joseph 20/11/2017 at 17:06

    As far as I understand Stotz of Switzerland claim and continue to claim that they are the only producer of this specification of cotton in the world. (And as stated on their website for years). China (and presumably Japan?) have never been able to produce the material and/or any cheaper as the raw materials and their costs are the same globally. (The raw ELS cotton materials are in limited supply; 2% of available cotton globally and grown successfully only in certain parts of the world). Bizarrely, although “ventile” is used for the bushcraft market etc, its really an extremely premium product (and is too expensive for most clothing brands to make a “turn” on and achieve any kind of reasonable retail price point). Most ventile garments are sold directly to consumer from manufacturer, as that’s the only way to make the numbers work (but people will always moan about the price, never realizing quite what they’re getting). It takes hours of skilled labour to make “ventile”. There have always been lots of cotton textiles which claim to have improved weather resistance, from China and elsewhere, but “ventile” is a certain specification with incredible and unrivaled warp/weft count and density. I’m also of the opinion that Stotz themselves regularly teeter on whether to continue its production. And their “off the self” colour options and held stock are tiny. Hope this helps?

    Reply
    • Joseph 20/11/2017 at 17:13

      Update: daiwabo is not a textile manufacturer? They refer to “Ventile” in clothing products, but they can’t make “Ventile” fabric as it is a registered trademark? They import and distribute, or represent, clothing MADE of Ventile.

      Reply
      • Joseph 20/11/2017 at 17:21

        Update update! Consulting the global trademark index, it appears that daiwabo do indeed own the trademark “Ventile” for China? Although it isn’t clear whether they make the textile, or to the same specification? I can faintly recall something about this with a case involving Barbour many years ago? If I remember correctly any textile from this company, called Ventile, can not be sold in Europe. (Which would make sense). So in a way I guess we’re back to square one, as you can only purchase garments with a “ventile” label of the variety made in Switzerland?

        Reply
  • charles OS 05/12/2017 at 22:36

    Very interesting having stumbled in here I have on many occasions in the past and more recently been thinking of going into more natural materials for my out door gear. I am in throes of replacing my Goretex Berghaus Trango Extrem (32Yrs Old) as it is becoming porous due to the PTFE breaking down but that said I’m not complaining as it has been high altitude trekking in the Himalaya, ski-mountaineering in the Arctic, Alaska and various other areas of northern Scandinavia and has been well used for day to day urban life and travel. I have an even older goretex from Berghaus that is now virtually porous but it still works, sort of………..From my perspective one other or both will be replaced by the softer versions of goretex out there now.

    Reply

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