How to waterproof your winter wear
Expert tips for protecting and reviving your coat, leather boots and more
Improving or revitalizing the water repellency of the winter outerwear and accessories in your wardrobe can help them look better and last longer.
Thankfully, it's easier than you may think to protect a new pair of suede boots from water stains or give your water-resistant winter coat a refresh. Like washing your down parka, finishing or refinishing these key wardrobe items properly at home does take a bit of time, some research and sometimes a specialty care product. But it's a process that's well worth the investment.
We asked two pros — Tess Gobeil, a leatherworker and co-owner of Awl Together Leather, and Steven Paul, senior merchant for seasonal hardgoods at MEC — to answer key questions about protecting our winter coats, boots and more.
How often should I re-waterproof a coat?
The durable water repellent (DWR) finish on water-resistant outerwear, whether it's on a raincoat or a winter parka, helps water bead off the fabric so that you can stay dryer longer. But over time, that finish will wear off and can become less effective after getting dirty.
Paul recommends re-waterproofing your outerwear at the beginning of every winter season and an extra time mid-season if you're wearing the parka or ski jacket "all the time in inclement weather."
A quick way to tell if your coat needs restoration? "Take your jacket and put it under the tap or get it wet," says Paul. The water should bead or flow off the jacket. "If the jacket starts absorbing the water when you put it under the tap, that's a sign that it needs to be cleaned and reproofed."
How do I restore the finish?
Start by spot-cleaning or laundering the garment as per care label instructions, says Paul. "If you dry something on [a] way too high [setting] … you can melt the fabric." He suggests using a front-loading washing machine if possible, as the agitator in top-loading machines can tangle and damage your coat. "Make sure that all your zippers are closed [and] everything's out of your pockets," says Paul. He then recommends using a specialty wash or technical fabric cleaner that's designed to preserve water repellency, as these products typically don't have in-built scents, fabric softeners or anything else that could contaminate the fabric and impact how your new finish might go on.
For technical outerwear — specifically garments made with Gore-Tex or other synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester — you can either use a wash-in product or apply a spray-on waterproofer. "The instructions on the products are very clear and very specific," says Paul. "It's quite easy to do and can really bring back the life of your jacket and older jackets."
For coats that are insulated or have a really thick lining, he recommends using a spray-on waterproofer "because you can actually target the part of the jacket [where] you want to create this water repellency barrier." Paul notes that down-filled coats will require special care and maintenance; there are specific cleaners and sprays made just for down.
How should I treat footwear?
Even boots that are advertised as "waterproof" can benefit from an extra layer of protection. Some waterproofing products can help keep the leather soft and supple, which can prevent it from cracking, says Gobeil. She recommends waterproofing your boots about twice a year, but more often if you're wearing them every day or in wet conditions. "I would recommend typically waterproofing at the beginning of the season as you're pulling your garments out … your shoes, your bags, et cetera," says Gobeil. "And then probably at the end of the season."
For fabric, suede and synthetic-leather footwear, Gobeil recommends applying a waterproofing spray that doesn't leave any residue or change the item's colour or texture (coloured waterproofing sprays are available for suede products).
For leather boots, says Gobeil, mink oil paste and beeswax-based finishes are some of the most common conditioning and waterproofing products. Awl Together Leather also uses a silicone-free spray, which "doesn't leave any surface residue" or "clog the pores of the leather, preventing other products [from] being applied."
Choosing the right leather product will require some consideration of your goals and preferences. It depends on "what you're OK with," adds Gobeil. "Mink oil will darken [my Blundstones] and it will give … an oiled boot texture." A clear spray won't change the look or shine of the item but also doesn't offer any conditioning benefits. She says, "It's always just good to do a test spot so you kind of know what to expect before you slather the shoe in it."
What are the best application tips?
Start with a quick clean. "I normally take a pretty lightly damp paper towel … and just wipe down the shoes, just to get off that top layer of dust or dirt that can sometimes linger," says Gobeil. This helps the product go on better. "It looks a little bit nicer when you're not mixing dirt in with your waterproofer," she jokes.
Read the instructions carefully for any spray-on products. "I typically find that if people go too close, [they] will end up with a white film of some kind," says Gobeil. When you're using an aerosol can for the first time, she suggests spraying onto a piece of paper or in a garbage bag first, "just to make sure the aerosol spritz is working correctly." Otherwise, you might apply too much product or end up with uneven coverage.
Similarly, try not to "over-apply mink oil or another kind of oil or wax-based waterproofer," advises Gobeil. "The boots stay tacky … then attract dust and sand," which will work their way into and worsen any existing cracks in your leather. You want to make sure that the product sinks into the leather instead of just sitting on the surface. She recommends applying a thin coat to start, then see how it looks and feels.
If you accidentally over-apply mink oil, Gobeil recommends adding a bit of heat with a blow dryer. That will heat up the leather a little bit, which "makes it a bit more soft and supple," and it'll also allow that oil to "re-sink" into the leather rather than sitting on top, she says. You can also combine a hairdryer with a clean cloth, which can be used to wipe away excess oil.
How do I winter-proof my leather bags and jackets?
"Bags and leather jackets don't necessarily need to be waterproofed in the same way [as boots]," says Gobeil. She recommends conditioning them so that the leather remains soft and supple. A body-safe, all-natural leather conditioner that won't rub off or impact the texture of the bag or garment is preferable. "
What about any harmful chemicals?
Gobeil recommends using aerosol products outside if possible or in a well-ventilated area, and leaving the item outside to dry when possible. You may want to wear a mask, gloves, an apron and even goggles like the workers do at Awl Together Leather.
Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.