Thursday, January 09, 2014


Last night there was this thing on PBS about retracing Shackleton's open boat voyage.

They claimed to be using authentic period knit clothing. They were not.

Look at the photos from Shackleton's trip and the modern re-enactment.  Shackleton's knit clothing was knit using knitting sheaths that provided the leverage to knit much tighter and more weatherproof clothing.  The modern replicas were knit much more loosely, and were not as weatherproof and warm.

Likewise, Shackleton's knit clothing provided a great deal more padding between the sailor and points corners that attack the sailor in a small boat in rough weather.  This is something that one must experienced to appreciate.  A well knit gansey pads against against corners and blows to the body in ways that are qualitatively different from modern, looser knitting.  I had been wearing my Mustang Survival coat for reefing in foul weather.  Then, one day I wore my gansey.  That night - no bruises across my chest from the boom banging against me.  It was a revelation of the virtues of a well knit gansey.

The re-enactment expedition was poorly served by their textile consultants.  The knitters, who knit the modern garments did not know the craft of knitting for sailors in polar conditions.  Their stupidity and ignorance caused hypothermia that increased sea sickness and dehydration.  Hypothermia decreases mental judgement.  Hypothermia decreases physical dexterity.

Shackleton's knit clothing was much, much warmer than the clothing worn by the enactors.  This is what happens when knitters and textile historians do knot know their physics and do not do their math home work.

One can look at the photographs of Shackleton's men, and estimate fabric thickness and density.  From that one can calculate  the "warmth" of the fabric.  Then, one produces fabric of similar warmth. The responsible knitters then tests to fabric to ensure that it is warm enough.  Testing garments for warmth is easy.  Find a good polar vortex storm, put on the garment, and sit in storm while you knit. If the garment won't keep you warm as you sit on the quay knitting (watching for a boat carrying a loved one to come out of the storm), then it is not warm enough to sail the Southern Ocean.

When I replicated such sweaters, I used McAusland heavy 3-ply knit on US#3  long steel needles with a knitting sheath. It was about 200 hours of very hard work, and it was the single most difficult knitting project I ever did.  I later wore that sweater to prune an apple orchard during a week of snow, wind, and freezing rain - that included sustained gale winds - It was below freezing, raining, and the wind was blowing trees down. The only other people out were the rescue workers and linemen working on downed power lines. That gansey kept me warm and toasty all day, every day for more than a week's work in the storm.  I had ice climbing gear from Patagonia in my baggage, but the gansey was warmer and more comfortable in those  extreme conditions.  (These trees held my mother's collection of  300 antique apple grafts, and careful judgement was required to prune them. These were full sized trees, and everything was icy so physical dexterity was critical.)

When new, that sweater was as warm as the sweaters that Shackleton and his crew wore.  However, it was not as durable.   Shackleton's knit wear endured on the ice. I respect that greatly.  The kind of mill spun yarns used to knit Shackleton's clothing are no longer available.

That is why I took up hand spinning.


Anonymous said...

Shackleton was equipped by Burberry using Jaeger woollens and their own outerwear. This included sweaters (jumpers), mufflers, balaclavas and all woven wools as well. Any additional clothing was personal/made by the adventurer. Once again, you're completely ignorant.

Look. It. Up.

Aaron said...

look at and the key words are, "must have been". The researcher did not put that gear on and wear it sailing and on the ice. The researcher did not test the physical objects. The researcher guessed, and guessed wrong.

With the old fisherman's sweater designs, different ventilation processes kick in, making the garments very comfortable. The garments shown in the show, 'Chasing Shackleton' had neither the warmth or the ventilation of the traditional garments. In particular, the garments were knit so loosely that drops of liquid water were able to move through the fabric. That should not be.

Look at the photos of Digby, NB oyster shuckers circa 1910. Boat loads of those oystermem were wearing the same Burburry/Jaeger sweaters that Shackelton's crew wore. In 1910, such hand-knit woolens were still a commercial product, produced by professional hand knitters using knitting sheaths. Anybody who knows the tools, knows the product. Equipment for the polar expeditions differed in detail, but were produced by the same professional knitters with skills and materials developed making fisherman's sweaters and tools honed by producing gear for fishermen.

The film production group had access to museum samples. They should have measured thermal conductivity of the samples and produced replicas with the same thermal properties. They did not.

I have spent 15 years studying how to knit warmer fabrics and garments. Much of this was testing. I knit different fabrics and tested to see which was warmer, and then compared that result to theoretic calculations of heat flow through such a fabric. It included knitting various kinds of garments and wearing them in various kinds of extreme weather. I have knit such garments and worn them to sleep in the snow without tent or sleeping bag.

I know enough to knit garments that will allow me to sail, fish, and snow camp in comfort. Have you worn your hand knit garments to sleep in the snow and been able to sleep warm and toasty? When everything for miles and miles is frozen, knowing how to sleep warm is the best kind of knowledge.

Let go snow camping!! We can knit our own "kits", and see who gets cold. If you really think I am ignorant and that you understand such garments, this is a bet you should grab. But you do not, because you just want to be rude, and not because you are interested in anything about knitting warm garments. You are just playing a classic nasty game from "Games People Play".

Anonymous said...

I just saw that show last night, and when I saw that cable knit sweater with big stitches, I thought of your spinning & knitting. And wondered how they would have fared in your style of sweaters. And socks - it's been a while since I've stopped in, have you done socks in your yarns?

I'm not a spinner or knitter beyond giving it a try a few times. You sure do have some commenters that seem to be absolutely convinced you are wrong. Which makes me say keep going Aaron - you must be on to something! The experts, esp. self-proclaimed ones, have been wrong before.


Aaron said...

My sweaters are knit to test the suitability of such sweaters for various conditions that sailors might meet, and for my own use.

While I have worn my sweaters as my sole upper body garment as I slept in the snow, they are not generally warm enough for polar conditions.

That said, knit wool garments were much used by Hudson Bay traders working in near polar conditions. However, they often upgraded to native-style fur garments as soon as they married native women.

That said, an inner layer of long underwear knit from 4-ply on 1.5 mm needles with an mid- garment of Aran weight knit on 3 mm needles, with outer layer of storm cloth or gabardine will let one work and play in polar conditions.

Or, some of the Fair Isle or Victorian "woven" stitches (see Mary Thomas) are very warm, and make an excellent layer to wear under a wind breaker/ oil skin layer.

Over all, I could plan and construct knit wool garments that would keep me warm in polar conditions. And, as I have said before, the sweaters used by Shackleton were not much different from those used by Digby oystermen of the same era. They were essentially Guernsey patterns knit from Aran weight yarns. I have recently been knitting Aran weight yarns on 2.5 mm needles and the resulting fabrics are very warm, and would be suitable for polar use.

However, knit wool would not be my first choice for most modern polar gear. Wool's advantages are durability, fire retardant, and warmth when wet. In polar cold, every thing is dry. Modern polar explorers do not sit around camp fires making the fire retardant issue moot. And, helicopters and airplanes mean that one's clothing does not have to last 3 years. For a scientist in Antarctica, nylon and (fiber fill) is better.

On the other hand, if you are sitting in snow, around a big camp fire at the North end of the Endless Mountains, watching the stars dance over head, nothing beats a good hand knit wool sweater. Nylon and down is warmer for the weight, but by the end of the trip, it will have holes in it from sparks from the fire and will be losing down out of those holes. Guys who wear down, need a roll of duct tape to patch their gear. Knitters do not need duct tape.

Teri said...

They did reproductions of the clothing George Mallory wore on Everest:

I can't find the article now, but he layered a smooth fabric, then a coarser one. He had more mobility than modern climbers.