Ventile is a name we’re increasingly often coming across these days. Is it a new innovation, or something that’s been around for over 70 years? Well, as it turns out, it’s the latter. History has it that it was developed in the late 1930s by the British Cotton Industry Research Association in Manchester, or the Shirley Institute, as it was known. In those days flax was used as the basis for weaving the material for fire hoses and water buckets, and with war looming there was a fear that the flax fibres used then would be in short supply, hence an alternative would be required. Research was conducted into using cottons and ways of weaving them that would keep water in. Apparently, this was a success and hence Ventile was born.
Ventile has thus been described as densely woven material, from 100% cotton using a long staple fibre. Only a few percentages of cotton fullfills this requirement. The resulting textile is not coated or laminated, the combination of a dense weave and the swelling properties of the fibres when they get wet providing excellent weatherproofing. This natural product offers a high level of comfort, look and feel, and when dry is breathable, windproof, durable and quiet in use. One it gets wet, it becomes waterproof. Oh, and also it has a strong resistance to tearing and burning. Fabrics made from the material are used in outerwear performance garments and have military, medical and workwear applications.
Sounds pretty damn perfect, eh?
During WW2 however, requirements changed.Britain depended upon convoys carrying vital supplies by boat convoys. These were susceptible to attacks from submarines and long-range bomber aircraft. The RAF was needed to provide escort for the convoys, but due to the distances from their home bases it was impossible to provide this from Britain. Winston Churchill is credited with coming up with the concept of using expendable Hurricane fighter planes that would be launched from the decks of merchant ships by catapult, and thence able to provide local cover for the convoy. Expendable in this case, of course meant that there was no way of landing and reusing the plane. The pilot would have to bail out and ditch the aircraft in the sea. The pilots being less expendable, it was vital that the survival rate after landing in the sea was a good as possible. Life expectancy could be as short as a few minutes in the cold water, and even though the pilots had signals and lights to aid their retrieval, most would die from exposure. This meant there was an urgent need for a new, protective clothing fabric that would be comfortable for the pilot to wear whilst flying, yet would provide the life-saving features needed to keep warm and dry once in the cold sea.
This then is where Ventile is claimed to have come to its fore. When made into finished garments, life expectancy in the sea was extended from a few minutes to 20 minutes and rescuing pilots from the drink was now a real possibility. It is claimed that 80% of anti-submarine pilots who fell into the sea now survived.
RAF clothing using Ventile went into mass production in 1943 and is said to be still associated with this use today. The design of the garments has evolved, but Ventile suits are still in use in use in todays Tornado jets used in the RAF and other NATO airforces.
So, given how Ventile has been such a huge success, let’s have a look at a Ventile RAF Immersion suit:
Sorry, we’ve been unable to find one, and apart from for a brief test, they might well not have existed. My friend Rob has been delving a bit into the history of Ventile and it seems most of the stories are quite unreliable. A lot has been made of the almost ‘magical’ properties of the stuff, not in the least by Nigel Cabourn. Most of the “facts” can probably be traced back to his explanation of Ventile in the 2003 ‘Ascent of Cabourn’ book that accompanied his clothes collection that year. The same story is repeated almost word for word in the history section of the Ventile manufacturers site and in newspaper articles and so on. The Cabourn book does cite an original source in the guise of his friend who was one of the scientists that invented Ventile. The story doesn’t mention survival suits actually being made from Ventile, just that there was a need for them and that Ventile went into mass production 1943.
The only source we could find on the net that seemed to hold up to serious historical research scrutiny is a Canadian governmental source discussing the research in immersion survival suits. It mentions the Baltic convoy survival suits of the war, but states they were leather. The RAF was one of the many army branches in and outside of Britain researching immersion suits after the war, since the need had become obvious, but Ventile doesn’t seem to come into it until after the war, specifically this bit:
“In the meantime, in the UK, the Medical Research Council funded a large series of experiments that were conducted under the auspices of the Royal Navy Personnel Research Committee. This resulted in a thorough analysis of the problem in many laboratories and culminated in a whole series of field trials. From this work the once-only ship abandonment suit, the new RFD inflatable pattern No. 5580 life jacket and the first submarine escape suits were developed for the Royal Navy. In parallel with this, the Royal Air Force developed the Mk 1 through Mk 8 aircrew constant wear immersion suit. The first six Mks were made from neoprene nylon, and from 1951, the Mk 7 onwards was made from ventile fabric, invented by the Shirley Institute just post war. The novelty of the fabric was that it was woven from Egyptian cotton in such a way that it would allow body moisture (i.e. water vapour) to pass through the interstices of the fabric, yet when immersed, the cotton fibres would swell to produce a waterproof garment. In practice, it was found that suits had to be made from two layers of fabric to prevent the hydrostatic force of the water pushing its way through a single layer of fabric before the fabric had time to swell (Reference 172). Other disappointments were that it was very expensive to manufacture, expensive and labour intensive to construct the suits, and the fibres would not swell effectively when exposed to body sweat or greases. After the Mk 8 suits, all subsequent ones were manufactured as one-piece suits.”
Since this document seems properly researched with reference notes we’re inclined to believe it over commercial garment and textile manufacturers websites. It states Ventile becoming available just after the war had ended. It also seems the first ventile immersion suit is a contemporary of the cold weather overall that is the inspiration of the ‘Taffy’ Cold Weather parka. The 22c RAF store numbers even suggest the coat was slightly earlier, although they both seem to hail from 1951.
The Royal Navy also seems to have dabbled in survival gear for immersion, there is some reference to tests in 1945 in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, but no photographs. It is unlikely that they used Ventile though, considering the stages the RAF seems to have gone through.
To sum up, maybe or maybe not, but it’s still a cool textile, whether the story stacks up or not. In recent times it’s seeing quite the renaissance in the hands of heritage conscious companies such as SEH Kelly (their new Ventile parka is shown as photo #2), Nigel Cabourn (shown below), Private White VC and others. Looks good, does the job, can we say sorted?