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Personal Warmth Systems

bxtai0284aIt never ceases to amaze your dear Aunty that there are people in the world who believe that cotton is an appropriate fiber to put into a long sleeved sweater. And if you are in the business of doing so…and your entire market resides between Southern California and Florida (and points between), then I suppose this makes some sort of sense. But if it’s cold enough to require long sleeves, it’s cold enough to require something that will actually keep you warm, even in a place such as Southern California.

I recall once doing a trade show in January in Anaheim, California. It rained for several days and hovered in the high 30s. We were all extremely miserable (and I thanked myself numerous times for hauling around my wool-lined raincoat). A cotton sweater at that time and in that place would have been useless.

Why IS that? Why are plant based fibers such as cotton, flax (linen), rayon, etc. actually worthless in the cold? And why are animal based fibers such as mohair, wool, angora, etc. so useful?

The secret is at the top of the page. That is a photomicrograph of a fiber from a sheep. Those ‘plates’ along the outside are referred to as scales and they are the secret to the warmth of animal fibers because they trap and hold warm air.

We used to raise sheep and I can assure you that with even only a ½ inch of a fleece on, there is no such thing as a cold sheep. As a matter of fact, we often used to go out in the winter, locate the sheep in the snow drifts by their black noses, call them in to dinner and they would rise up, encrusted with snow and ice, leaving a completely melted spot underneath them. If we put our hands into the fleece, parting it, steam would actually escape. On the one hand, the fleece would trap the warm moist body heat of the sheep – but on the other hand, it would insulate at the outer edges, allowing the snow to remain frozen at the top – providing them with a sort of weather-proof roof.

All those scales provide lots and lots of little pockets to trap warm air and that’s what keeps you warm. That’s why the common wisdom is to dress in layers. The more layers you have, the more pockets to trap warm air.

Another factor in terms of wool is its uncanny ability to absorb moisture and still keep you warm. Sheep’s wool can absorb up to 40% of its weight in moisture. That makes wool garments warm..but also very very heavy if they get wet.

Now, back to plant based fibers. The reason that plant based fibers won’t keep you as warm as animal based ones is that the fibers themselves are totally smooth. There are no scales. On the other hand, this makes them absolutely magical in terms of warm weather garments. They breathe wonderfully, allowing body heat to escape. But if you get wet (sweaty tee shirt, anyone?), unless you are someplace where the air temperature is pretty close to your body temperature, you will feel cold and clammy – your body heat is being wicked away through the wet fabric. That is the major reason why wearing cotton denim jeans to go hiking, climbing or skiing is not a good idea. Hypothermia is NOT fun and is many times fatal.

So, given that most of us are not doing the Sir Edmond Hillary bit and are wondering more along the lines of ‘how do I lower the thermostat inside the house and still feel comfortable?”

Here are a few tips.
Moist air feels invariably warmer than dry air. No matter what your heating system (forced hot air, radiators, electric baseboard, wood stove), the hotter you make the indoor air, the lesser the capacity for that air to carry moisture. So, merely by lowering the temperature, the air will have more capacity to carry moisture and will feel a little warmer. But you have to have moisture to put into the air. Here are a few ideas:

If you have clothes drying or airing racks, do your laundry and put it out on the racks around the house, preferably where people are actually doing their activities. If you have forced hot air, putting them over or next to the grates will perform two functions: The clothing dries faster and it will put moisture in the air. If you are short on laundry, soak towels, wring out and hang those.

Put shallow pans or non-melting containers right next to hot air grates, on top of radiators or on wood stoves. Just make sure they are full of water at all times.

Cooking puts a lot of moisture into the air. Pull out a fan, put it into a doorway and use that to pull moisture into another room.

Dressing correctly always helps. There are certain clothing items that definitely give you warmth bang for the buck.
Non-cotton socks and tights. This year, Dame Fashion is smiling on women and heavy tights are in stock everywhere and worth investing in. A good base layer – look for tights and socks with acrylic and/or wool. Silk sock liners are a good addition as well and are very thin. You may have to order over the internet.

Lined clothing. A lining in anything ups the warmth factor, especially (ahem) if it’s made with some wool. In items such as dresses and skirts, look for a skirt that is flared, pleated, or gathered and has a lining (again, we are applying more fabric to the job of capturing more warmth. Pencil skirts are foxy but don’t have enough room to trap warm air). In items such as slacks or pants, look for brushed surfaces, wool, and lining. I know in men’s slacks, most of the time the lining only comes down to the knees, which is better than nothing. If you are stuck waiting on an open platform, walking to work etc., investing in some of the high tech knit fabric base layer “long johns” or silk or, ahem, wool is a good idea, as is wearing layers on top and a knee length top coat or lined raincoat. With skirts and dresses, adding a slip or petticoat does marvels.

Undershirts (aka top ‘base layers’). Wearing ANYTHING close to your body underneath the top half of your clothing makes an amazing difference. Sleeveless tanks in something other than cotton are great; silk if you are feeling luxurious. There are also finely knit merino wool base layers around. Polyester and nylon are, frankly, worthless in my opinion.

Multiple thin beats one thick. If it’s really cold, I find that wearing one huge heavy sweater just doesn’t do it. Part of the problem is that invariably, I end up someplace where it is warm enough that I need to take off the sweater but then I freeze. So, my trick is to wear a thin warm sweater (I like wool but I also like snuggly acrylic knits too. The fuzzier the better) and then a slightly heavier sweater on top. That covers everything. The DH has his own version of this – in the winter, he wears a knit vest with his wool suit. If it’s really cold or he has to spend a lot of time out of doors, he wears silk underwear and sock liners under his suit and a vest. If it’s totally brutal, he wears a thin wool pull over under his suit coat.

Shoes and boots. I realize this may sound like a ‘no, duh’ but this is another item that amazes me in terms of people’s negligence of it. I know there are a lot of people out there who do not wear shoes in the house. I also know people who go barefoot in the house. No matter what school of thought you hold, feet need to stay warm. Some people wear sneakers everywhere. Sneakers are not made to keep you warm. As a matter of fact, since they are meant to be worn while performing physical activity, they have built in means to allow warmth and moisture to escape. Even if you are inside the house, if you have cold floors, sneakers and cotton socks will not keep you warm. Better to wear slippers and wool socks than sneakers and cotton socks. (and no, I am not an agent of the Sheep Producers…) No matter where you live, unless you have radiant or copper pipes running through your floors, the floors are cold in the winter. Feet have the least amount of insulation of almost any other place on the body besides the hands. Put a good layered system between your feet and the floor: warm socks and slippers or shoes. The same goes for out of doors: Insulated boots and good warm socks. Looser boots that allow more than one layer of socks are better than tight boots – this helps the circulation in the feet. If your boots have leaks, get creative with keeping your feet warm and dry – putting your feet into plastic bags before you put on the boots does work. Take care of your boots – keep them greased up and polished.

Hands: mittens beat gloves every time but Bob Cratchet and his gloves with the ends of the fingers cut out had a good idea also. My son found that his hands got chilly when he was working at the computer at school – I made him gloves with shortened fingers. Mittens ARE more effective in terms of keeping hands warm but they are not the most elegant answer. If you want your gloves to be warmer, look for silk glove liners.

Wear a hat. I know this sounds totally Victorian, but people in the old days wore hats to bed for a reason and it was NOT to keep their perms looking nice. We lose a lot of heat through our heads. Wear a hat and not just outdoors. Sometimes, the most effective way to up the warmth and comfort factor is not to load on a sweater, it’s to put on a knit hat.
(photo at the top courtesy of Technology in Australia)

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3 Comments

  1. WolfSong says:

    Couple years back, we had a friend come up from the southern states to deer hunt with Hubby. We are in the middle of Manitoba, and we warned him to bring every item of cold weather wear he had, and I figured we’d still have to out fit him. Boy! Did we ever! Runners just don’t cut it in the -20’s, and plastic pants are no good for keeping out that cold! Luckily, we had an extra pair of leather snomobile pants, and I always have the silk blend long johns around. I figure if I have to wear longjohns, dang it, they had better feel good!

    Well, we did end up getting the boys out hunting, but our friend was blown away by how cold it can get here(even though we warned him), and never thought so many layers would let him move as freely as he did.

  2. renee says:

    I absolutely refuse to buy cotton sweaters anymore. I used to think they were such a great bargain! This year I pitched four of them and will not be buying anymore. It’s another great motivator to learn how to knit.

  3. htwollin says:

    I know there are a lot of folks out there who do the ‘polypropylene’ thing, but I have to admit that when I grew up, hunters wore black and red checked pants and wool hunting shirts (and long wool underwear) under their hunting jackets, and THAT is what hunting clothing is to me.

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