Growing up in a large family with modest means, we lived off the land and sea, cultivating our family vegetable garden each year, and fishing, crabbing, and clam digging on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. My father was an engineer during the week and a skipper and pilot hobbyist on the weekends. He built grandfather clocks, fishing dories, one-design racing sailboats and single engine airplanes in our garage. We spent many weekends racing Lightning class sailboats and flying around in his vintage Aeronca Chief and Aeronca Champion.
My mother was an artist, teacher and homemaker. She taught my siblings and I how to sew, and pointed out the different fabrics, wool, silk, cotton, synthetics and their different applications. I was intrigued by the vast difference in texture and drape. The first experience I had in understanding the importance of wool was with my father, on his handmade dory, a few miles out in the Atlantic fishing for flounder and blue fish. Depending on the season we were either sweltering or shivering. On cold days, he would reach under the seat and pull out a dense wool Army blanket and wrap me up. I can remember the musky smell of the wool and the instant feeling of comfort, warmth and safety. The scratchy texture and weight of the blanket made it feel so substantial and protective.
Testing in the elements
When I was 17 I moved to the Rocky Mountain region and spent the next 20 years living, working and roaming the mountain wilderness on ski and hiking adventures. I learned about wilderness survival and how to dress for the elements. I enjoyed being in the backcountry of Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming, where I learned to read the natural elements of each season. I spent time learning to hunt small game, kayaking and fly fishing rivers, finding hot springs and spelunking. I spent these years honing my skills and refining my preparedness. Since then I’ve moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and have spent the last 22 years sailing on the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Miles from shore being pelted by rain, sea and wind, or to experience extreme conditions of –60°F below zero in the mountains, has a sobering effect. The harsh reality made me realize how important textiles are to my survival.
Textiles, clothing and gear needed to be of a certain quality to have a safe, successful and enjoyable wilderness trip. The quality, and content of the clothing could make or break the experience. Anyone who has spent time in the backcountry knows the saying ‘Cotton Kills’ which refers to the inadequate properties of cotton to keep a person adequately insulted and protected. An experienced wilderness person would never carry any cotton clothing with them as it would be utterly useless. Cotton and plant-based fibers cannot adapt to the body’s changing temperature and moisture fluctuations, in response to variable external temperatures, and can easily lead to hypothermia. We need animal fibers in our fabrics to help us thermoregulate in hot and cold climates, for comfort and survival. Wool stood out to me over the years as an essential fiber, and a main staple for clothing.The most effective way of dressing for the outdoors is a wool-based layering system of medium/thin base garment, followed by thicker wool blend garment, and topped off with tightly woven waterproof shell made from synthetics. Synthetics are only useful to block the wind, they are not waterproof without chemicals, and they do not breathe which causes overheating and sweating. Wool is the only fiber that continues to work even when it’s wet.
Responsible textile technology
Wool has a deep history as the primary base fiber in textiles. This primacy has been sidelined by the hegemony of the “Big Ag Cotton” industry originally built on the backs of oppressed peoples and subsequently predicated on obsolescence as a business model. Industrial production and the promotion of cheap throw-away clothing with planned obsolescence pushed wool out of many of its most appropriate applications. As a highly functional and environmentally conscious fiber, wool has few parallels as a regenerative, responsible textile technology. Wool allows us to create quality products of lasting value. Cheaply produced cotton garments and products wear quickly and poorly, while many expensive fabrics are constructed so as to be difficult to care for and clean. Products made from wool and wool-blends produce items that are durable, functional, and comfortable, making them less likely to be thrown away.
No sign of development
Over the decades, I continued to observe the functionality of outdoor clothing, and spent a lot of money on top outdoor brands. I was always in search of quality wool clothing that worked well in the backcountry and additional pieces that looked great for a professional environment. It was an endless search and rarely did the items last more than a few seasons. I desperately wanted my favorite brands to push the status quo and develop more functional and beautiful fabrics. I was encouraged for a time when 100% Merino wool was introduced to the market, mostly in the form of base layers and sweaters. I rarely found woven wool clothing for street or professional wear. Most wool was in the form of knits and not very durable, and woven wool fabric is generally very stiff and used for men’s suiting. The choices were very limited to say the least.
Fast forward several years, I hoped to see some improved fabric developments. Unfortunately, not only were there no new developments, the 100% Merino wool products lost quality and were being blended with 50% polyester. A fossil fuel based plastic adds no inherent value to the finished garment, and as we now know, has a tremendous negative impact on the environment in the form of micro plastics which shed off when wearing and washing the garments.
Connecting humans with nature
Many people dislike wool because it can be itchy, the skin irritation can be mistaken for an allergic reaction. This reaction is from the rough barbs of the fiber rubbing on the skin and is considered an irritant rather than an allergy. Wool production has evolved over the years and today we have much finer, softer fibers from a variety of sheep breeds. Wool production promotes diversity in fiber cultivation, in agricultural processes, and in land use that serves the general ecological welfare. Working with wool and its many uses preserves and modernizes centuries old craft traditions that would otherwise be lost. These traditions persevere because they have functional and aesthetic values which have not diminished over time.
Textiles are part of being human, they cover and reveal us, they protect against the elements while permitting us to be a part of nature. It is this natural alliance that makes wool such an important part of daily life. The next time you buy clothing or a product, consider paying more for the value it will provide over time. Consider what my grandmother used to say ‘we’re too poor to buy cheap’ as she couldn’t afford to keep replacing items. Consider the crafting, materials used, and functionality. Consider the price we pay now versus the price we pay down the line. Consider the importance of choosing wool.
By Jennifer Daley
My father James (Jim) Daley, in front of his Aeronca Champion that he built in our garage and flew out of a small local airport in New Jersey.
My mother Marguerite (Peg) Daley, and me riding in our motor boat on the Matedeconk River, NJ.
We were exposed at an early age to life on the Eastern seaboard and Mother Nature.
Arial shot of our family home from my father’s airplane
Iceboating on the Matedeconk River in the 1970s.
Sailing on San Francisco Bay