Icons: Ventile – fact or fiction?

Ventile is a name we’re increasingly often coming across these days. Is it a new innovation, or something that’s been around for over 70 years? Well, as it turns out, it’s the latter. History has it that it was developed in the late 1930s by the British Cotton Industry Research Association in Manchester, or the Shirley Institute, as it was known. In those days flax was used as the basis for weaving the material for fire hoses and water buckets, and with war looming there was a fear that the flax fibres used then would be in short supply, hence an alternative would be required. Research was conducted into using cottons and ways of weaving them that would keep water in. Apparently, this was a success and hence Ventile was born.

A ventile smock used by the SAS (Special Air Service)

A ventile smock used by the SAS (Special Air Service)

Ventile has thus been described as densely woven material, from 100% cotton using a long staple fibre. Only a few percentages of cotton fullfills this requirement. The resulting textile is not coated or laminated, the combination of a dense weave and the swelling properties of the fibres when they get wet providing excellent weatherproofing. This natural product offers a high level of comfort, look and feel, and when dry is breathable, windproof, durable and quiet in use. One it gets wet, it becomes waterproof. Oh, and also it has a strong resistance to tearing and burning. Fabrics made from the material are used in outerwear performance garments and have military, medical and workwear applications.

Sounds pretty damn perfect, eh?

A modern ventile jacket by London makers SEH Kelly.

A modern ventile jacket by London makers SEH Kelly.

During WW2 however, requirements changed.Britain depended upon convoys carrying vital supplies by boat convoys. These were susceptible to attacks from submarines and long-range bomber aircraft. The RAF was needed to provide escort for the convoys, but due to the distances from their home bases it was impossible to provide this from Britain. Winston Churchill is credited with coming up with the concept of using expendable Hurricane fighter planes that would be launched from the decks of merchant ships by catapult, and thence able to provide local cover for the convoy. Expendable in this case, of course meant that there was no way of landing and reusing the plane. The pilot would have to bail out and ditch the aircraft in the sea. The pilots being less expendable, it was vital that the survival rate after landing in the sea was a good as possible. Life expectancy could be as short as a few minutes in the cold water, and even though the pilots had signals and lights to aid their retrieval, most would die from exposure. This meant there was an urgent need for a new, protective clothing fabric that would be comfortable for the pilot to wear whilst flying, yet would provide the life-saving features needed to keep warm and dry once in the cold sea.

An original RAF immersion suit as used by fighter pilots when there was a risk of falling in the sea.

An original RAF immersion suit as used by fighter pilots when there was a risk of falling in the sea.

This then is where Ventile is claimed to have come to its fore. When made into finished garments, life expectancy in the sea was extended from a few minutes to 20 minutes and rescuing pilots from the drink was now a real possibility. It is claimed that 80% of anti-submarine pilots who fell into the sea now survived.

RAF clothing using Ventile went into mass production in 1943 and is said to be still associated with this use today. The design of the garments has evolved, but Ventile suits are still in use in use in todays Tornado jets used in the RAF and other NATO airforces.

So, given how Ventile has been such a huge success, let’s have  a look at a Ventile RAF Immersion suit:

Sorry, we’ve been unable to find one, and apart from for a brief test, they might well not have existed. My friend Rob has been delving a bit into the history of Ventile and it seems most of the stories are quite unreliable. A lot has been made of the almost ‘magical’ properties of the stuff, not in the least by Nigel Cabourn. Most of the “facts” can probably be traced back to his explanation of Ventile in the 2003 ‘Ascent of Cabourn’ book that accompanied his clothes collection that year. The same story is repeated almost word for word in the history section of the Ventile manufacturers site and in newspaper articles and so on. The Cabourn book does cite an original source in the guise of his friend who was one of the scientists that invented Ventile. The story doesn’t mention survival suits actually being made from Ventile, just that there was a need for them and that Ventile went into mass production 1943.

An original cold weather parka used by the RAF.

An original cold weather parka used by the RAF.

The only source we could find on the net that seemed to hold up to serious historical research scrutiny is a Canadian governmental source discussing the research in immersion survival suits. It mentions the Baltic convoy survival suits of the war, but states they were leather. The RAF was one of the many army branches in and outside of Britain researching immersion suits after the war, since the need had become obvious, but Ventile doesn’t seem to come into it until after the war, specifically this bit:

“In the meantime, in the UK, the Medical Research Council funded a large series of experiments that were conducted under the auspices of the Royal Navy Personnel Research Committee. This resulted in a thorough analysis of the problem in many laboratories and culminated in a whole series of field trials. From this work the once-only ship abandonment suit, the new RFD inflatable pattern No. 5580 life jacket and the first submarine escape suits were developed for the Royal Navy. In parallel with this, the Royal Air Force developed the Mk 1 through Mk 8 aircrew constant wear immersion suit. The first six Mks were made from neoprene nylon, and from 1951, the Mk 7 onwards was made from ventile fabric, invented by the Shirley Institute just post war. The novelty of the fabric was that it was woven from Egyptian cotton in such a way that it would allow body moisture (i.e. water vapour) to pass through the interstices of the fabric, yet when immersed, the cotton fibres would swell to produce a waterproof garment. In practice, it was found that suits had to be made from two layers of fabric to prevent the hydrostatic force of the water pushing its way through a single layer of fabric before the fabric had time to swell (Reference 172). Other disappointments were that it was very expensive to manufacture, expensive and labour intensive to construct the suits, and the fibres would not swell effectively when exposed to body sweat or greases. After the Mk 8 suits, all subsequent ones were manufactured as one-piece suits.”

Since this document seems properly researched with reference notes we’re inclined to believe it over commercial garment and textile manufacturers websites. It states Ventile becoming available just after the war had ended. It also seems the first ventile immersion suit is a contemporary of the cold weather overall that is the inspiration of the ‘Taffy’ Cold Weather parka. The 22c RAF store numbers even suggest the coat was slightly earlier, although they both seem to hail from 1951.

The Royal Navy also seems to have dabbled in survival gear for immersion, there is some reference to tests in 1945 in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, but no photographs. It is unlikely that they used Ventile though, considering the stages the RAF seems to have gone through.

To sum up, maybe or maybe not, but it’s still a cool textile, whether the story stacks up or not. In recent times it’s seeing quite the renaissance in the hands of heritage conscious companies such as SEH Kelly (their new Ventile parka is shown as photo #2), Nigel Cabourn (shown below), Private White VC and others. Looks good, does the job, can we say sorted?

In case you’re considering a Ventile garment, you might want to read about the ugly facts they’re not telling you about.

A ventile jacket by Nigel Cabourn.

A ventile jacket by Nigel Cabourn.


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  • Headley Grange 23/02/2015 at 23:02

    My experience of wearing a double ventile Survival Aids jacket for a two week walking holiday in Scotland is that I wish I’d had a Gore-Tex – or a bin bag. Ventile only stops water getting through AFTER its soaked through. I got wet through when it rained where as my synthetic-clad mates stayed dry. The jacket got wet, wicked water from the outside to the rest of my clothes and leaked copiously through the seams. When wet it weighed approximately 200 tons. My holiday was about ten years ago and I’m pleased to say that the jacket is almost dried out now.

    I can’t believe they made immersion suits out if it either. Ventile made its reputation in arctic conditions where it doesn’t rain. In the woods it’s easily ripped by branches and thorns. On the hill it’s not very abrasion resistant when scrambling. When walking your bergen straps will act as a pump and force water through the material until you’re full.

    If you want a waterproof then get Gore-Tex or Paramo (my favourite when I’m cycling) or almost any of the synthetic stuff that’s out there at the moment.

    If you want the best kit for walking in Britain then a pair of Ron Hills and a Buffalo shirt. You’ll get wet but you’ll never get cold.

    Just my tuppence. Other opinions are available.

    • Philip Henderson 25/10/2022 at 08:58

      Excellent reply . Thanks for this

  • Philip Sanderson 07/01/2016 at 17:23

    Yes the Ventile story is very engaging but I similarly tried to track down some evidence and very little is forthcoming. I own an old Grenfell Cloth coat which is meant to have very similar properties but as with a cotton tent it is not so much waterproof as swells up with the water such that once waterlogged no more gets through – unless you say put your hands in the pockets, then the water wicks through at the pressure/contact point. Looks nice though…

  • Simon King 23/03/2021 at 19:02

    I have (snugpak) Westwinds Ventile jacket (not smock). It is well designed and with pockets aplenty etc but when it gets wet the wind evaporates the water and it gets decidedly cold (and stiff). Unfortunately It leaks where the neck joins the body. (but not according to Westwinds who checked it twice and assured me it didn’t leak, however they didn’t try pouring water on it, they just checked the stitching. They also argued that the waterproofness relied upon applying things NikWax etc which I pointed out goes against the ethos of the thing and their own claims for it)

    I like this jacket a lot despite its faults, it is extremely comfortable when dry, it’s wind proof and apart from the neck is water proof. For inclement weather you do need something warm under it ( and in my case a flannel around my neck ). One really great and underestimated thing is its breathability. I am an extremely sweaty fellow when exercising and have a problem with all synthetic materials, which not only encourage sweat but don’t wick anywhere near well as natural fabrics in my experience.

    The current trendiness of Ventile is, I think, generally a good thing despite both your and my reservations, provided we can get away from the chemicals and encourage the use of the organic version.

  • Chris Howarth 02/11/2022 at 11:20

    Cabourn really love to flower up their sales pitch. Their sweatpants in collaboration with Umbro claims the double diamond logo on the left is ‘inspired by the RAF bullion badges of WW2’
    Erm. No it’s not. It’s the Umbro Logo.

  • Kevin G 02/04/2023 at 08:26

    Thank you for the article. When I first heard about Ventile I also found their claims to be too good to be true.
    The Canadian document you mention points to another reference twhich I could not find anywhere. (“Willett, P. The Introduction of the Inner Immersion Coverall for British Military Aircrew. Aircraft Equipment Branch. MOD P.E. 1988.”)
    However, while looking for it, I found that the UK national archives (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk) have a few documents about immersion coveralls and Ventile. I’m sure it would be very interesting to read them but, unfortunately, none of them has been digitized. The only thing that can be said from the titles is that first mention of Ventile occurs in 1947 and that the first mention of Ventile used in immersion suits dates back to 1984.


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