Wool Still Works
Recently I relocated the buttons on my Filson double-cruiser and Mackinaw vest to give more room to fasten around my aging middle. When I bought these back in 1972, I was told by the sales adviser at Eddie Bauer to buy one “not less than two full sizes larger than I wore now,” because quality woolens are “lifetime garments” which I would “grow into.” A sad truth to be sure. I could lose weight, but moving the buttons for now is easier. I can always move them back.
When I got out of the service I wore a size 43 suit. When I walked into the store I had intended to buy size 44. The sales adviser at Eddie Bauer talked me into a size 46. In hindsight now I realize I should have gotten a 48. The photos show that its tightly woven wool fabric has lost some of its nap over the years, the rich forest green color has faded and turned seams are threadbare in places. Living in Virginia these days, I wear my vest often while the double cruiser sees only occasional winter wear. Both garments smell mildly of lanolin and wood smoke. They have traveled lots of miles, and evoke memories of pleasant hunts, a few impromptu nights spent in the woods, and one especially dark, cold walk along Rt. 114 after my car slid off the road and into a pond near Sutton, New Hampshire in 1984 and probably saved me from freezing to death.
While modern Gore-Tex and fleece is lighter to carry, it is much less resistant to tears and damages easily when riding or walking through heavy thorns or brush. Tightly woven wool is heavier and today more expensive, but if you buy quality it will last for many years of hard outdoor use and keep you warm as long as you apply basic cold weather principles. In winter I wear silk next to the skin, merino wool-polyester blend long underwear over that, Norwegian style rag wool boot socks, Navy watch cap, GI wool glove liners, Mackinaw wool trousers and long sleeved wool shirt over that, then my wool vest, rip stop anorak, gaiters and leather D3A glove shells.
If the lowest weight and bulk are important to you, the newer types of clothing are available. But in harsh environments where you must make one set of outdoor clothing last, it should be entirely wool, with the possible exceptions of silk or polypro underwear and a 60/40 cotton-poly rip stop anorak or windbreaker.
This is because wool remains warm when wet, including complete immersion. Next to a diver’s wet suit wool clothing offers the best protection in cold water. Trapped air in the garment is buoyant and aids as insulation. Bulky wool sweaters worn by Allied sailors and U-boat skippers during WWII documentaries weren’t for show. They were necessary for survival. The body loses heat 32 times faster in water than in air.
You cannot appreciate the panic-shock of being suddenly immersed in cold water, unless you have experienced it. IF you live to tell about it. It doesn’t have to be winter. After three hours in 70 degree water you are exhausted and your hands too numb to grasp a lifeline. In 40 degree water you may last 30 minutes without an exposure suit. If you live near the water, boat, trap, hunt or fish in the cold water months you should be skilled in water self-rescue methods.
Wool blankets are required survival gear for private aircraft in Alaska because they keep you warm when wet. Wool blankets are durable, long lasting, and cost less than sleeping bags. They are flame resistant, noncombustible and safer to bundle up in close to a camp fire. British, Swiss, German and Italian army blankets can be found online for as little as $20 each. A U.S. GI blanket is 60 inches wide, 84 inches long and weighs 3-1/2 pounds. During WWII and Korea the original GI poncho liner was an 18 inch slot cut parallel to and centered 36 inches back from one of the short edges, fabric taped and stitched by parachute riggers. The 36 inch length in front of the slot falls to the crotch but doesn’t get in the way of your legs when running. The 48 inch length in back covers your butt and back in warm comfort while sitting. The sides tuck at the waist and are held by the pistol belt.
A WWII vet sent me dimensions of captured WWII German Jager’s blanket – this is what our GIs had their riggers copy from. Dimensions approximate rounded to presumed intended metric dimension. It would be easy to make one of these from the surplus Euro blanks on the market.
1.5m (59″) wide
2.2m (87″) long
Weight 2 kg (4.4 lbs.)
A head slit 1/2m (19″)long 1m (39″) in from, centered and parallel to one of the short ends, whip stiched with black linen shoemakers thread around inside edges.
When worn as poncho the front hangs to crotch level, doesn’t get in the way or make noise when walking. Longer 1.2m rear section hangs low enough to cover your butt and give something to sit on if you are of “average” size. Two sets of large button holes 20cm (8″) apart are 50cm (19″) and 70cm (8″) in from each corner along the long sides. You can tuck the blanket flaps under the arms out of the way fasten them loosely around your body for wind protection. Later Bundeswehr sleeping bag with armholes replaced this gear, but I think I would prefer the modified blanket for freedom of movement and not having to scramble out of a sleeping bag to relieve myself, tend the fire, walk, run or shoot.
C.E. “Ed” Harris is well known to readers of American Rifleman, the Gun Digest and the Cast Bullet Association’s Fouling Shot magazine. During 12 years on the Technical Staff of the National Rifle Association he was a consultant to numerous military, law enforcement and firearms industry organizations and was officially commended by the U.S. Marine Corps Development Center, Quantico, Virginia for expert technical assistance provided during the Development and Operational Testing of the M16A2 rifle. He is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, holds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Professional Development Certification in Emergency Management and for 22 years he has worked for local government in Northern Virginia.