Friday, August 31, 2018

Notes on the history of Sou'Westers and Oilskins

A Canadian-manufactured Sou'Wester in the collection of the Wooden Boat Museum of NL,
Winterton, photo by Jeremy Harnum.

Last week, I wrote on the origin of the Newfoundland word “linkum” - a variant of the word “Lincoln” denoting a specific type of Sou’ Wester oilskin hat often worn by fishermen.

The word “Sou’Wester” itself has a somewhat complicated history, and today it can mean either a long oilskin coat worn especially at sea during stormy weather, or, in the usage related to linkums, a waterproof hat with wide slanting brim longer in back than in front.

One possible etymology (given by Wikipedia) is that the name has to do with the Sou'wester wind which is the prevailing wind in the seas around the UK. Interestingly, the word has similarities in other languages: in Dutch it is zuidwester; in German, südwester; and in Swedish, sydväst. The use of “South Wester” to describe both the cap and the coat date back to the early 1830s.

Below: Sou'Wester owned by Patrick Kinsella in the collection of the Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove Museum, photos by Katie Crane. The label reads: Miner Weatherseal Black Diamond Made in Canada.

The use of linseed oil (a colourless to yellowish oil obtained from the dried, ripened seeds of the flax plant) to make oilcloth probably dates to the 18th century, when it was primarily used as an inexpensive floor and roof covering.

The journal Scientific American included this description of oilcloth in August 1869:

Manufacture of Oil Cloth 
The manner of making oilcloth, or, as the vulgar sometimes term it, oilskin, was at one period a mystery The process is now well understood, and is equally simple and useful.
Dissolve some good resin or gumlac over the fire in drying linseed oil, till the resin is dissolved, and the oil brought to the thickness of a balsam. If this be spread upon canvas, or any other linen cloth, so as fully to drench and entirely to glaze it over, the cloth, if then suffered to dry thoroughly, will be quite impenetrable to wet of every description.
This varnish may either be worked by itself or with some color added to it: as verdigris for a green; umber for a hair color; white lead and lampblack for a gray; indigo and white for a light blue, etc. To give the color, you have only to grind it with the last coat of varnish you lay on. You must be as careful as possible to lay on the varnish equally in all parts.
A better method, however, of preparing oilcloth is first to cover the cloth or canvas with a liquid paste, made with drying oil in the following manner: Take Spanish white or tobacco pipe clay which has been completely cleaned, by washing and sifting it from all impurities, and mix it up with boiled oil, to which a drying quality has been given by adding a dose of litharge one fourth the weight of the oil. This mixture, being brought to the consistency of thin paste, is spread over the cloth or canvas by means of an iron spatula equal in length to the breadth of the cloth. When the first coating is dry, a second is applied. The unevennesses occasioned by the coarseness of the cloth or the unequal application of the paste, are smoothed down with pumice stone reduced to powder, and rubbed over the cloth with a bit of soft serge or cork dipped in water. When the last coating is dry, the cloth must be well washed in water to clean it; and, after it is dried, a varnish composed of gumlac dissolved in linseed oil boiled with turpentine, is applied to it, and the process is complete. The color of the varnished cloth thus produced is yellow; but different tints can be given to it in the manner already pointed out.
An improved description of this article, intended for figured and printed varnished cloths, is obtained by using a finer paste, and cloth of a more delicate texture.
Source: “INVENTION.” Scientific American, vol. 21, no. 8, 1869, pp. 123–123. JSTOR, JSTOR,

If you have memories of someone making oilskins, or know of a traditional recipe from your community, call Dale at 709-739-1892 x2 or email

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just heard of the German word "Sauwetter" meaning bad weather, literally "pig weather"! Wondered if that might be an alternative origin? 😎