Date: 20 July 2011
Wind Speed: 20 knots
Temp with wind chill: -36
The use of wool as a textile and clothing fibre dates back many millennia. So it is not surprising to find wool being the predominant fibre of choice for the Antarctic explorer during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s and Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expeditions in the Heroic period (1895-1915).
Many of the thermal clothing items that the explorers wore were commercially made and supplied by brands such as Wolsey and Jaeger. The Wolsey thermal top (pictured) is from Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, and is grubby from use and patched, most probably by a member of the Ross Sea Party.
Wolsey brand wool thermal top © AHT/ Sarah
When I was growing up in the 1970s seventies synthetic fibres were seen as the new miracle fibre for all manner of applications. In the 1980s synthetic fibres such as Polypro were used extensively for thermal underwear, despite the horrid smell they often attained after wearing when exercising and their slightly harsh nature.
I was greatly relieved, when I first started coming to Antarctica, when a friend told me to invest in a set of ‘new’ woollen thermals that were starting to appear in the New Zealand market in the late 1990s. Ahhh, the joys of a natural soft fibre that can be worn for many days when camping without getting smelly.
Now, in 2011, you can’t enter an outdoor gear supplier without finding merino wool thermal underwear adorning the shelves. It goes to prove that animals have adapted very well to their environments and natural fibres are still far superior to their synthetic counterparts when it comes to thermal insulation. The Heroic explorers were probably as comfortable as we are today in their thermal underwear.