January 23, 2015

Canvas oilcloth overmitts sealed with beef fat, beeswax, and linseed oil

I commute by bicycle 36km roundtrip to work most days, year round. Being in New England, some specialized gear is called for in the winter months. With a good layering system, carbide spiked ice tires, and a sanguine attitude, the hour or so it takes me each way is almost reasonable. It is nice to get some fresh air, have time to think, and it is my only form of exercise.

One key element to the winter ensemble is overmitts. For the past 10 years or so I've been using some gore-tex ones Becky bought long ago for bike commuting. Overmitts are great, because you can put them over light gloves when it is not that cold, or over heavy mitts when conditions are frigid. They typically have a long gauntlet section that can lap up over the jacket sleeve to keep wind out. These ones were roomy enough that in very cold weather I could work my thumbs up out of the thumb holes and keep them in the same compartments as my other fingers to keep them warm, while riding. All in all, very satisfactory.

Unfortunately as the weather got colder late this fall, I could not find the overmitts anywhere. Arrgh! Being at the end of the third year last fall of the No Buying Clothes challenge, this was a serious problem since I didn't just want to purchase a new set from Amazon like a normal person. 

I've often wondered how people managed in fierce outdoor conditions before gore-tex. Probably early on, one had furs rubbed on the flesh side with fat. I did think about how a pair of overmitts fashioned from a couple of home-tanned neighborhood squirrel hides would be cozy, not to mention a good conversation starter. But they city doesn't approve of trapping wildlife, I might get blood thrown on me by PETA activists, and anyway with the tanning and everything it seemed a big project to take on when what I really needed was some mittens to protect me from the rapidly plummeting temperatures.

I remember as a teenager doing some experiments using urine and brains to tan the hides of jackrabbits my mom and I shot in the dessert. I can't recall the details, but I do remember it didn't turn out all that well. That was before the internet; I'm sure the process could be developed much more efficiently now that I could just google "tan squirrel hides with brains and pee"!

Anyhow, looking at more recent times but before the polymer materials revolution of the mid and late 20th century, oilcloth or tincloth was a popular material for outerwear. This is a heavy cotton fabric, impregnated with sealants to begin with and occasionally recoated as needed. There are many recipes for sealants, but a common thread is a mixture of linseed oil and beeswax. Sometimes pine tar or other ingredients are called for.

I decided to give this a go since I could make it with materials and tools I already had on hand. To begin, Buster and I pulled out some cotton canvas from the fabric stash and pressed it.

 I traced around my fleece inner mitts as a starting point for a pattern, and we sewed up a test mitt with a french seam.

This mitt ended up too small, and the french seam created an annoying crumpled ridge when turned to the inside. For rev 2, the pattern was expanded and sewn with a plain seam.

These won't be laundered often (ever?), and they were to be gooped up with wax, so fraying of the seam allowance didn't seem like such a danger. Rev 2 looked like it was approaching usefulness.

To help contain potential fraying, and enhance waterproofness at the seams, I tried to fold the seam allowance to one side and stitch a length of silk ribbon over it. The serger finished edge visible here is a remnant from when I used to have a serger. I did the edges of the canvas before washing it, before it went into my stash.

This ribbon idea was not executed perfectly, but I figured it would do for a prototype. 

Concerned about gripping of handlebars, I applied some rug gripper compound to the palm and inner face of the fingerbox area. Now that I've used them a fair bit, I don't think this was actually necessary for use on the bicycle. Might help with gripping of the snow shovel handle though.

After the rubber was set, I mixed up a small amount of sealant. I decided to use mostly beeswax and linseed oil, and to throw in some beef tallow that Becky had skimmed off a pot of beef stock she had made recently.

Plus some orange oil for smell. I bought a liter of it years ago when we had a cat, to try and keep it off a couch, which didn't work all that well. Still trying to use up that bottle somehow.

  • 40g beeswax
  • 40g linseed oil
  • 10g beef fat
  • 10g orange oil
I heated it up in a beaker over a low flame, with a foil cap.

When fully melted, I painted it on to the canvas.

Next, I melted it in with a heat gun. The one on the left has been heat gunned in, the one on the right is as-painted.

After this, the fabric was very yellow and stiff, and pretty stinky (from the linseed oil I think, though the overtone of bitter orange didn't help any). I hung them up in the bathroom for the weekend.

Over a few weeks, the fabric became more soft, less yellow, and less stinky. The sealant really seemed to sink into the fabric.

I've not yet worn them in a real downpour, but they have weathered plenty of freezing drizzle and temps as low as -22C (-9F). They are working great. Not quite as waterproof as the gore-tex ones were, but perhaps they need a second coat of sealant. This pair is starting to look a little grubby after months of service. Using darker color fabric next time would help. Maybe I'll hand wash them in soap, let dry, and reseal once a year.

For rev 3, I would definitely adjust the pattern a bit. The main improvement would be to shift the position of the thumb to be wholly in the palm side pattern piece, rather than split at the middle. The outline of the finger box and the thumbhole need some tweaking. And I think a bit more flare in the gauntlet would aid in donning and doffing.

Overall this is a viable technique for outerwear. I've read that in some situations, oilcloth is still preferred over gore-tex because it can be far more durable. Like in the timber industry in the pacific northwest for instance.

Maybe when my current pair of gaiters wears out I'll make some oilcloth ones. Or even overpants or a jacket. But I'm going to milk my gore-tex garments along as far as I can, since I've got no shortage of  other pressing sewing projects to work on.


SJ Kurtz said...

This is a reasonable mitten pattern (the thumb has no seam in the joint), many variations like this around the interwebs

(been making lobster gloves for BikeTeen)

As ever, fine work sir.

Bob Gates said...

Very good use of materials on hand. Do the mittens keep your hands warm and dry? Do they allow some moisture from your hands to pass through and out? Or are they just wind proof either direction, keeping cold out being the task?
Very cool.

Holly Gates said...

Yes, the mittens are quite functional (combined with an insulating inner mitten). Last week I wore them to bike to work in -23C (-9F) cold, for about 1.5 hours. The ends of two fingers were white and numb by the time I got there, but I'd say I should have a thicker insulator mitten for that level of cold, which is after all very rare here. Wore them sledding the other week with the kids, and they did fine even being dragged over the snow for many runs for control and braking. I'm pretty sure they are relatively breathable, perhaps even more so than the gore tex ones they replaced. Inner mittens are still sweaty and need to be removed to dry after the bike commute, but seem a little less wet than with the previous pair.

Anonymous said...

With that beef fat used, I'd have to keep those hung well off the floor - Miss Piddles (beagle) would be smelling that beef fat and chowing down! And I'm not too sure one of the cats wouldn't take a taste too.

Bikes are a bit tricky for commuters here even in good weather (no much for bike lanes), I can't imagine riding on snowy/icy roads in winter or in rain.