Ventile, the ugly facts they don’t tell you

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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?

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…

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…

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.

 

 

Liked it? Take a second to support nick on Patreon!

10 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

Leave a Comment