Early treatments for protective textiles

Skins and furs, worn to protect against the elements in pre-history, would not of course have been washed with detergent or alkali. They would therefore have had a long-lasting inherent degree of water and rain resistance by virtue of the natural oils and fats still present from the animals they were taken from, whilst being 'breathable', i.e., water vapour permeable. They would have been of sufficiently solid cover to offer a degree of protection to the body from sunlight, rain, cold winds, and partly from insects; the inherent natural fatty products would possibly have improved water repellency and prolonged the life of the 'garment' by virtue of some protection from bacterial and fungal degradation via reduced wetting. They were, presumably, not sufficiently tough to protect effectively at that time against a sabre-toothed tiger attack (unless of 'high performance' rhino-type hide) but the serious side to this is that the effectiveness of breathable rainwear has not advanced so dramatically over those millennia. Certainly tanned leather still finds protective apparel uses in addition to footwear, it also exhibits shower proof effects in clothing, and an inherent degree of fire-retardant (FR) properties in firemens' tunics in some parts of the world.

In the middle ages, deliberate attempts were made to design clothing for protection on the battlefield. Sophisticated chain-mail armour provided lighter weight designs than metal breastplates and similar solid metal cover for other body parts. These chain-mail armours retained a useful effectiveness against some weapons of the day. This concept was to withstand the test of time due, in addition to its lighter weight, to being highly breathable and flexible for improved comfort and ergonomics; these are sought-after attributes in today's protective clothing. Their downside of course is lack of resistance to sharp point penetration.

As far as applied finishes of the past are concerned, oiling of cloths of woven linen or cotton was achieved with drying oils such as linseed (from the seeds of the flax plant, which oxidises to become more durable). With natural wax incorporated, this finish formed a good hydrophobic water-resistant base for foul-weather protection. With sufficiently tightly woven constructions for a high-cover factor, fabrics could be made usefully impervious to water. Water-soluble ammonium salts, sulphamic acid and borax/boric acid were impregnated in cotton fabrics to reduce flammability, but were (and are) of somewhat limited usefulness for personal protective garments, due to the significant loss of functional product on washing the garment.

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