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Oilskin is fabric that has been impregnated with oil to make it waterproof. Before the development of synthetic fibers, this was the material of choice for waterproof garments and coverings. Sailors, especially, grew familiar with oilskin, since it protected them from the elements on the job. As a result, many sailors still call modern waterproof garments by this name, although they are made from different materials.
The base material for oilskin is usually canvas, since it is sturdy and the cotton fibers absorb oils that are rubbed into it. Linseed oil was a common choice, although oilskin could also be made by rubbing pitch and tar onto canvas. In addition to repelling oil, the fabric will also repel spills, and it was often used for table and floor cloths as a result. Garments made from it were also known as “oilskins.”
As one might imagine, oilskin garments were not always comfortable. The fabric could be stiff and unpleasant to wear until it had been broken in a bit, and it could also smell unpleasant, depending on what type of material was used to waterproof it. However, the benefit of not getting wet was usually worth the cost of mild discomfort or irritation.
Oilskins were used by outdoors people in general, in addition to sailors. Hunters, for example, often wore oilskin jackets, and the tarping was used to wrap loads for protection. As synthetic fibers entered the market, most people replaced the cumbersome material with the sleek new products. Modern oilskins often include design features that are designed to make them more useful, like sleeve closures to prevent water from working its way in.
It is still possible to buy oilskin fabric and garments made with it, and people can also make their own. Oils like beeswax make great waterproofers, and they smell pleasant, unlike the tar of old. Garments and shoes can also be oiled to make them waterproof if they aren't already; canvas sneakers and jackets, for example, may benefit from an oiling. Some companies make beeswax and oil products that are specifically designed for this purpose, and shoe stores often carry these products.
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