Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Antarctica - unshrinkable in the face of adversity

As I cast on the stitches surrounding the South Pole and commence my increasing circumnavigations of Antarctica my thoughts are drawn to those heroic explorers who first ventured into this harsh, hostile and desolate wilderness.  Images of the expeditions led by Scott and Shackleton start to flood my mind.  Men clad in thick woollens going about their daily routines.  Huddled round stoves beneath lines of neatly paired drying woolly socks. 

Copyright - Freeze Frame http://www.freezeframe.ac.uk/home/project/6

Wool together with cotton formed the basis of polar clothing during the heroic age of antarctic exploration (late 19th to early 20th century).  Wilson, a member of the British Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904, rated wool over all other fabrics. 

“It is a golden rule to avoid anything but wool as far as possible. All furs are far too impervious, and, instead of allowing the free evaporation of moisture from the body, collect and absorb it all, and become heavy and wet when frozen.”

But experience proved this to be incorrect.  The tightly fitting layers of woollens worn by the explorers became damp during periods of heavy physical exertion.  Once wet the wool acted as conductor rather than insulator taking heat away from the body.  Men soon became cold and clammy and cases of frostbite were common.  In extreme temperatures clothing would freeze greatly impeding movement.

Two main companies dominated the Antarctic clothing market during the early 20th century. They were Jaegar and Wolsey.  Shackleton chose Jaegar clothing and blankets for his 1907 and 1914 expeditions whereas Scott chose Wolsey to supply his 1911 expedition.  The Wolsey company, a then market leader in the manufacture of unshrinkable wool, supplied Scott's party with essential under and outer garments.

Wolsey brand wool thermal top © AHT/ Sarah

The Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition of 1949 -1952, was one of the last to rely heavily on natural fibres.  Like their heroic predecessors the intrepid explorers once again opted for Wolsey underwear, the same type as worn by Scott and Shackleton.  Lightweight hand-knitted Shetland wool jumpers and/or heavyweight Norwegian sweaters were also a feature of their apparel.

By the latter part of the 20th century wool was declining in popularity as a fibre for polar clothing. New high performing synthetic fibres were becoming the preferred choice.  A trend which now appears to be reversing.  In the last decade a new kid has appeared on the block. Merino wool is being hailed the new miracle fibre. Proponents of this fibre claim it is not only soft and warm but can be worn for days and days without getting smelly.  One convert to the fibre is Professor Jane Francis of Leeds University.  Her comments about a geology field trip to our southern most continent first amused me, then reassured me that the story of wool in Antarctica is not finished.

"After a week's rest under my pillow (the Antarctic equivalent of a wash cycle!), I wore them again and they were still comfortable - they did not go too baggy and they did not smell too bad."

As I add the last stitch to Graham Land I find myself marvelling at the worn, patched and grubby items of clothing from the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.  The colours of the yarns chosen for these garments may have been limited (brown, grey, khaki, black and dark blue) but the yarn each garment has to tell is truly rich and unique. Within each worn yarn and darned patch are tales of battles won and lost, of perseverance, endurance and extreme hardship, of comradeship and ultimate sacrifice.   They are a memorial to those explorers of the heroic age and a permanent reminder of the lengths that man will go to in the pursuit of adventure and scientific knowledge.

Knitting my lines of latitude I reflect upon my own unique adventure.  I am embarking on an adventure that will link knitting and wool to individuals, communities and continents around the globe. I'm travelling much lighter than my heroic ancestors.  My chart will be my map guiding me on my journey,  my needles my vessel of transportation and the yarn my route log.

2012 is the centenary of Scott's epic Terra Nova expedition so why not mark the event by knitting a pair of vintage explorer socks or something with an Antarctic theme. Here are a couple of suggestions to wet your appetite:

Pattern available from The Vintage Knitting Lady
© The Vintage Knitting Lady

Emperor Penguin Family Crochet Pattern from PlanetJune
© PlanetJune

Happy Knitting in 2012.  Let me know how you get on.


Aaron said...

One of the real advantages of a custom "knit to fit" gansey is that if the ease is correctly worked, it will vent - eliminating the damp sweater effect. In very cold weather the venting was controlled with a comforter (scarf).

Commercial suppliers did not knit to fit the way a wife or mother could. This is a primary reason why I think that a great many fishermen's and sailor' sweaters were knit locally, rather than by contract knitters producing product for a distant market.

Look at Kelly Cordes' discussion of testing modern sports wear in the Jan 2012 Patagonia catalog. Suppliers for the various expeditions did not have such testers.

However, mothers, wives and local knitters could talk to older fishermen in the fleet, and those fishermen's wives and mothers. Fisherman's and sailors sweaters were knit to designs that had been tested.

crivens42 said...

Even wool can become cold when wet if moisture cannot evaporate because of what is worn on top. The early expeditions would not have modern breathable wind/waterproof outer garments, and this will have been a major contributor to the problems of cold and freezing.

All the more modern experience of wearing layers of wool under breathable outer shells/jackets has proven that wool still works better than any synthetic at maintaining optimum thermal regulation.

You do not say what your own experience is of wearing wool v. synthetics in extreme weather conditions. Those of us who have can testify to the effectiveness of wool in a wide variety of conditions, both in polar and mountain regions where our lives depend on having the right gear.

I think if you look on the internet at what the likes of Andy Kirkpatrick and others say about merino, you will get a better picture.

Penelope Sinclair said...

Thanks for your post. I'll certainly check out what Andy Kirkpatrick says about merino. I have worn both wool and synthetics. For me its about finding what works for me in the environment I'm operating in and also what is affordable. So for my hill and fell walking and farm work wool is good. For caving and potholing I have avoided it. As a lover of wool and all things knitted it is good to hear that there are many out there who still appreciate this great and versatile fibre.

Penelope Sinclair said...

I was fascinated to hear that each fishing community in the UK originally had its own distinct gansey pattern. On a sad note this was to help identify any fisherman who might be lost overboard and later washed ashore or recovered at sea. On a plus side it has lead to a collection of beautiful designs.

The Knitting Genealogist said...

Re. your penguins - my husband has a toy penguin given to his great grandfather by Herbert Ponting, the photographer on the Scott Expedition. Apparently, Ponting had them made when he returned. Ponting was a member of (and I think sometimes lived at) the Authors' Club in London, where my husband's great grandad was the manager.

I will have to take a pic of him and put it up on my blog.

I have spent some time looking at the provisions of the earlier Franklin Expedition. Ganseys were indeed, as mill records show, knitted on a commercial scale and not, as people romantically think, by mum sitting on the cottage doorstep. Or rather, the home made ones would have been outnumbered by the handknit commercially made ones, let alone the frame-knitted ones from Leicestershire, etc.

I will try and remember to photo Ponting's penguin. I dunno how many more are in existence but this one is unique as it was actually given to my husband's grt grandad personally, by Ponting.

Penelope Sinclair said...

What a brilliant story about the penguin. Thank you so much for sharing it. He is certainly a very special penguin. I look forward to seeing pictures of him on your blog.