On Ventile and Survival

On Ventile and Survival

 

Clothing may sometimes be seen as a frivolous subject, but some fabrics are a matter of life and death. Tony Sylvester dives into Ventile's crucial role in World War II.

 

In the late 1930s, the British government found themselves in something of a bind: a failing flax crop was about to hit their munition provision. While flax is well known for its linen, it was also essential for the manufacture of rubber firehose and buckets. An alternative was necessary, and the answer came in the form of the first fully watertight cotton construction. This nameless new process meant that woven long staple cotton fibres actually swelled when wet, sealing against the elements, and on the eve of WWII, vital firefighting supplies once again swung into production. 

 

Of perhaps more sartorial interest, but no less critical, this new fabric found another usage for the Royal Air Force. The long-distance convoys vitally needed to bring supplies to Britain from Russia and America, so RAF support was imperative to deter German attack. The vast distances from home prohibited the short-range Spitfires housed on UK airbases from service. The solution was to launch the smaller and cheaper Hurricanes from the decks of accompanying aircraft carriers, but the technology to land safely back on deck was severely lacking. The only option was for the planes to be jettisoned and the pilots ejected into the freezing temperatures of the arctic seas. This exposure to the elements made survival for the waterbound pilots virtually impossible, and while planes were expensive, it could be argued they were ultimately expendable. Skilled aviators, however, were not. 

Tests began on this new cotton compound at The Shirley Institute in Manchester, and a name was needed for this refined wonder cloth. The newly monikered “Ventile” went into production in the early ‘40s, principally for RAF flight suits and over-parkas. The results were spectacular. A downed pilot could now survive over 20 minutes in sub-zero water, his survival rate jumping to a staggering 80%. This one simple process went a long way to ensuring Britain’s air supremacy against the Axis.

 

The manufacture of Ventile continued after the war, and alongside military usage, the cloth offers similar haven for hikers and mountain climbers to this day. For Spring / Summer ‘20, Drake's have employed its light, practical functionality for its Tropical Stable Jacket - a handsomely wearable piece of outerwear clearly inspired by both European work jackets, and the barn coats of American farmers and field sportsmen. I am sure the striking blaze orange colour way is a tip of the cap to the material's lifesaving heritage, and it is reassuring to know your jacket's very fibres have been tested to the limits of human endurance.