Beeswax cloth

An example of modern beeswax cloth that can be used for packaging.

Image: iStock and Luidmila Chernetska.

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In earlier centuries a constant problem for packers and carriers was keeping the goods dry as well as protecting them from wear and tear during transit. For much of Europe, recycled sailcloth provided an inexpensive and effective material for external wrapping. Consequently the treatment which the sailcloth had previously received would be of great significance for its waterproofing capacity when reused.

For thousands of years the exteriors of many packages were coated with naturally occurring bitumen which is still in use for roofing but troublesome to handle. For sailcloth woven from hemp or flax, or later cotton, the key requirement was that the fabric was as impermeable as practicable so that the sail would extract the maximum energy from the wind.

This would be achieved by coating the sail with fish oil, tallow or wax to reduce its permeability and encourage the rapid run-off of rainwater. Fish oil and tallow, though cheap and plentiful, derived from rendered animal fats, is unpleasant to handle, and sailcloth treated with linseed oil or wax came to be preferred.

However, linseed oil has a limited life span when exposed to sunlight, and during the 19th century tea clipper races close-woven cotton impregnated with paraffin wax, obtained as a by-product of oil refining, proved to be the most efficient. Use of paraffin wax as an ingredient in packing materials is not eco-friendly, while the naturally occurring mineral wax, ozokerite, which began to be mined and refined in the 1880s, has been in increasingly limited supply since the 1940s. Furthermore, this mineraloid is also, strictly speaking, a petroleum residue.

Consequently today bees waxed fabrics (toiles cirées) have taken on a new lease of life as eco-friendly wrappings, initially for food products, which are washable and thus re-usable.