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Nikwax inventor develops performance outdoor clothing
Feature: 3/2/2003



It all started in 1977, when outdoor enthusiast Nick Brown set out to find a "decent" waterproofing product that would also be environmentally friendly.



Studying for a degree in social anthropology and linguistics at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, he spent his free time working from his tiny room, using just a Bunsen burner and saucepan, when he discovered a winning formula for waterproofing walking boots that did not soften them, and so Nikwax (Nick's wax) was born.

With green issues high on the inventor's personal agenda, the 1980s saw the development of the Nikwax WaterBased range of products for footwear, clothing and equipment. Innovative, easier-to-use application methods (sponge tip for footwear, washing machine friendly or hand application for fabrics) did away with the need for aerosols.

Now all of the products are non-aerosol and free of propellant gases, CFCs and chlorinated solvents. Nikwax WaterBased products are claimed to be suitable for all types of clothing, ropes, tents, saddles and just about anything that needs regular help to maintain its resilience to water.

Having mastered that strand of making outdoor life more enjoyable, Nick Brown turned his attention to the garments that his products helped to maintain. Believing he could improve on conventional breathable fabrics, in 1984 he developed a range of Nikwax Fabrics using his accumulated understanding of weather protection and comfort delivery for the outdoor enthusiast.

Directional fabric system

He realised that, on the whole, breathable fabrics did little to disperse liquid water (as opposed to vapour) away from the body. By studying the way in which various plants and animals cope with water transfer, he devised a fabric system that directs water and air to the surface, to disperse it faster.

This unique "directional" concept placed the fabrics in a category of their own - most simply explained as replicating what a dog achieves by shaking itself dry to make it more comfortable.

After expanding his operation to the current site in Wadhurst, East Sussex in 1985, Nick Brown's first opportunity to test the new fabric to its limits came in 1986. He chose Páramo, an area in the Andes, above the tree line and below the snow, to put his garments to the ultimate test.

Using the clothing system he had developed, he stayed warm, dry and comfortable - despite heavy weather at 3,800 metres.

By 1989, Brown's 12-year dedication to the outdoor industry was rewarded with the Outdoor Writer's Golden Boot Award for Enthusiasm, Dedication and Technical Input to the industry.

Outdoor garments

He went on to take the Nikwax fabric range to the consumer market. In 1990, he approached mountaineering instructor Greg Care, who helped develop the first outdoor garments under the brand name Páramo, using the "directional" fabrics engineered by Nikwax.



One of the components of the range is Parameta S, a reversible fabric that directs water to one face and traps still air in the other.

Used for a shirt, it is adaptable to both warm and cold conditions. One side of the fabric is fleecy and the other smooth. In cold temperatures the fleecy side is worn next to the skin, capturing air and providing an insulating layer. In warmer temperatures the smooth side is worn next to the skin; water is captured by the smooth weave and acts as a cooling layer.

In 1992, Nick Brown established a production facility to manufacture a complete range of garments using the new Nikwax fabrics in Bogotá, Colombia. Working with the Miquelina Foundation, he provided disadvantaged local women with the training and skills necessary to earn their own living and climb out of the poverty trap.

The factory has manufactured approximately 4,000 garments per month for the last ten years. Starting with just two machines, he now has 120.

Factory growth

As the factory has grown, so has the Foundation's ability to rehabilitate more women and provide them with formal training. There are currently 148 full time workers at the factory, 80 percent of who have been "re-educated" and now possess a formal qualification.

In 1994 Nikwax Waterproofing was separated from Páramo Directional Clothing, although the two companies maintain a close working relationship under Nick Brown's leadership.

By 1996 Nikwax was exporting waterproofing products to 28 countries and that year was awarded the Queen's Award for Export. This honour was bestowed on the company again in 1999, by which time it was exporting to 35 countries and producing all literature in 21 languages.

And last year, Nikwax celebrated its Silver Jubilee with the launch of the Nikwax Travel Towel, another example of Brown's ingenuity.
Author: John Gibbon
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