Although my opinion of Barbour was much raised by seeing the repairs department last month, the highlight of that trip was the archive.
The oldest piece (below) is from 1910 – a simple, knee-length double-breasted coat in yellowy waxed cotton. Pieces were often double-breasted at the start, as wind protection across the chest was very important. Some, indeed, were triple-breasted, with two flaps on one side that the other flap sat between.
The original wax was heavier than the one used today, but still a much better option than the two contemporary alternatives: liver oil and tar. Workers applied one or the other to their normal cotton jackets, but liver oil smelt, was light, and dissipated quickly. Tar was much better protection (it was used on the ships themselves for similar purposes) but was very heavy and cracked when it dried.
Gary Janes (pictured top, with designer Toby Egelnick and myself), the design and development manager at Barbour, made the point that such cracking was particularly unhelpful at the elbows. The cold water would seep into the cloth, and become particularly painful given how sensitive elbows are to temperature. It’s one reason a tight cuff is also important, so water can’t run down the sleeve and pool around the elbow.
Gary is an interesting character – he worked with Nigel Cabourn for 15 years, handling the pattern-cutting side of the business. It’s not surprising he’s so fascinated by the Barbour archive, therefore, and he still tries to incorporate aspects of it into new collections. Although the pressures on costs are rather more at a company producing £250 jackets than at Cabourn.
Gary also made the point that the 1910 coat only remains today because it hasn’t been that heavily used. Typically, that would mean it had a middle-class owner; working-class men would wear them into the ground, until they fell apart. The same goes for many things we still have today, including cars.
In the picture at top, Gary is examining my vintage Barbour motorcycle jacket, dating it by virtue of various design details. The unbranded poppers put it before the 198os; the black-and-yellow label is more specific to the early 1970s (black and yellow was meant to reflect the colour of car licence plates); but the checked-pattern inside is quite imprecise, as they weren’t used consistently for particular lines or periods.
The rest of the Barbour archive evolves slowly over the first half of the twentieth century, with coats adapted to various uses. The second one we see is about a foot shorter, presumably for someone that needed more freedom to move their legs. The one after has an ingenious system for buttoning the bottom hem up between the legs, effectively creating a pair of shorts.
We only had about an hour browsing the archive, with Horst (Friedrichs, photographer) shooting each piece in turn. It could easily have taken up the whole afternoon.
Fortunately, I did take some video of Gary, which I’ll post in a week or so.