An American aviator, Leslie Leroy Irvin, designed the now legendary Irvin RAF Sheepskin Flying Jacket, but that wasn’t his first claim to fame...
Leslie Irvin was the inventor of the parachute “rip-cord” system and, in 1919, was the first man to make a premeditated free-fall jump from an aeroplane. The Irvin parachute was quickly recognised as an important piece of aviation equipment and in June 1919 Irvin set up Irvin Air Chute to manufacture parachutes for the U.S. government. In 1926 he opened a factory in the UK, at Letchworth and by the end of the 1930s Irvin parachutes were in use worldwide.
As aviation advanced so did the altitudes to which pilots could fly. Suddenly aircrew were flying to thousands of feet where temperatures would easily be sub-zero, not a good thing when aircraft construction still provided basic, un-insulated cockpits. This situation drove Irvin to create The Irvin Flying Jacket.
Irvin’s jacket was superb. Made from heavyweight sheepskin, its thick natural wool provided incredible insulation. And, while the sheepskin was considered heavyweight the jacket itself was comparatively light and remarkably comfortable. Irvin insisted on the most supple sheepskin: in a cramped cockpit movement was already restricted and no pilot or crew would want to be constrained further still. The Irvin jacket was a masterpiece of design, maximum warmth and comfort combined with maximum mobility. The jackets had long sleeves zipped to enable gauntlets to be worn. The wide collar could be raised to provide excellent insulation around the neck and lower part of the head and face while a belt was fitted at the waist to ensure draughts couldn’t drop the pilot’s body temperature and reduce his level of alertness. The original jackets didn’t have pockets as these were not needed.
Irvin was producing his jackets at Letchworth and supplied the RAF during the Battle of Britain and through most of WWII. The jacket was so popular Irvin had to enlist the services of subcontractors in order to meet demand. The subcontractors are often held responsible for variations in the pattern of jackets made during the war. Many examples from the WWII production show variations on that, for example, an additional, small angled panel above each hip. But the point is “there was a war on”, almost everything was scarce, including supplies of high-quality sheepskin, so large panels would be made by patching together smaller off-cuts. The variation in the original jackets is, we believe, not a result of poor subcontractors, but solid thinking by resourceful, committed seamstresses determined to keep their boys warm and safe as they defended the skies.
After the war demand fell away and Irvin stopped producing jackets. Fans maintained a buoyant second-hand market, but eventually supplies dwindled away and the jackets became very hard to find. And that’s what faced Simon Green when, in 1977, he simply had to have a “real” flying jacket.
Simon Green, the founder of Moto-Lita the world renowned steering wheel manufacturers was also a keen pilot. Unable to find an Irvin jacket for himself he set about making one. After much research and with the help of Irvin GB Ltd who provided pictures (though had no patterns) of the original jacket designed by Leslie Irvin and with the help of staff at the RAF Hendon museum a faithful reconstruction of the Irvin jacket was created.
Shortly after, Simon was contacted by one of WW2’s original Irvin jacket subcontractors who provided further original patterning and machinery some of which is still used in the production of Irvin jackets today.
Whilst the Irvin Company did not think it would be commercially suitable for them to recommence production, they were delighted with Simon’s passion for producing the jacket and approved the jacket pattern and the usage of the Irvin name. By late 1977 the production of Irvin jackets had recommenced and Aviation Leathercraft began.
Moto-Lita Ltd (Aviation Leathercraft) are the proud owners of the Irvin trademark, which is sewn into each Irvin jacket a woven label that serves as your guarantee that your jacket is a genuine Irvin.
Some of the most prominent RAF Squadrons, the RAF itself and numerous professional services such as the Police, Fleet Air Arm and the Army Flying Corps have commissioned us to design and produce their flight jackets. But some things don’t change: we still use the best materials and the most highly skilled craftsmen here in the U.K. We still demand the quality and attention to detail that gained Irvin his reputation and proudly continue this tradition.