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What You Should Know About Waterproof Fabrics Before Buying a Rain Jacket

May 26, 2024

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When you’re considering your next rain-ready jacket to keep you dry, there’s no shortage of fabrics that tout water-repelling abilities.

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 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 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.

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.

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

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Long-lasting.Better with age.Easily reparable.Heavy.Not as waterproof as other materials.Long Haul JacketAshby JacketFieldmaster JacketOilcloth ParkaHighly waterproof.Heavy and stiff.Low breathability.Rubber eventually dries out and is irreparable.Synthetics.EVA Adult PonchoWaterproof Hooded Long Rain JacketStockholm Rain CoatDunoon Classic MacExtremely waterproof.Breathable.Lightweight.Lower durability.Synthetic.Minimalist Gore-Tex Waterproof Hooded JacketCloud Ridge JacketGore-Tex Soutien Collar CoatPackable Garment-Dyed Gore-Tex Hooded JacketNote: