My father, a World War II veteran, suffered from trench foot, still suffers from its after effects. He contracted the condition in Europe by having cold, wet feet for days on end. A similar condition called immersion foot may be familiar to veterans who served in Vietnam where the water was warmer, but still caused loss of circulation. Dry socks are not a luxury. Warm, dry clothing is not only a joy and a comfort, it can save your body parts and your life. Protection from sun and wind, thorns and brush, cold and damp can be essential to your survival. But no matter how well prepared you are, sooner or later everything you own will wear out. When there is no thrift store, mall or internet with overnight delivery, you’ll still need to protect yourself. In this article I will lay out some strategies for keeping you covered and comfortable. I will not address specialized clothing such as rain gear, armor and personal protective equipment. I will discuss what you wear every day: how to choose clothing and preserve. In future articles I hope to describe how to reuse and recycle clothing and, if necessary, create it from scratch.
The first question is what do you need to wear? What clothing is essential to your everyday tasks? I sit in an office most of the day. What I wear in that setting is not appropriate for mucking out stalls, tramping through heavy brush or digging in the garden, so I have two kinds of “working” wardrobes. The first step is deciding what activities you’ll be performing in what kind of weather and determine if the clothing you have is going to keep you comfortable during those tasks. Will you be hunting, hunkering down, chopping wood, following a plow? Have you tried out your clothing in these situations and how is it working for you? Will you be outside in heat and cold, wet and dry? What do you currently own and what do you need to buy? What can be repurposed for the coming tasks? How much clothing do you need for how long? Can you make what you have last until it can be replaced? What if it can’t be replaced except by your own efforts? Inventory what you have and see where you are falling short. Decide if you need more of anything and make a plan to add, repair, replace or pare down if your closets are full of things that will do you no good.
What should your clothes be made of? There are basically three types of fabric: plant derived, animal derived and synthetic. Each has different characteristics. Natural fibers like cotton, hemp, bamboo, and linen, and some cellulose-based synthetics like rayon and its kin (modal and viscose) absorb moisture, breathe and allow you to stay cool. Wicking away moisture is important both in summer, when it helps keep your skin cool by allowing evaporation, and in the winter, when sweating under clothes can leave you clammy and chilled. Silk has properties similar to plant-derived materials with the added advantage that it can keep you cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather with very little added weight. My silk long underwear is dear to me. Historically silk has been used under armor to prevent chafing, aid in cooling and, so the story goes, to add an extra layer of protection, as well as making arrows easier to remove should they penetrate your armor.
Animal fibers like wool and hair can keep you warm even when they are wet. But a wool shirt, once soaked with your sweat, can also serve as a good evaporative cooling system. A closely woven or felted wool coat will keep you warmer than anything but heavy fur, with the added benefit that it can turn water for a considerable time. Fur, leather and hide, if treated correctly, can repel water and can be made soft enough to go next to the skin, although wet leather on skin, in my experience, is not a joy.
While synthetics, especially polyester, nylon and acrylic, have their place and are available in an amazing array of textures and weights, they may be less desirable than more natural fabrics. They often do not breathe and can leave you feeling clammy and damp, especially if worn close to the skin. Synthetics are often blended with natural fabrics to improve their handling, wrinkle resistance and cost. The more of the natural fiber blended into the fabric, the better it will likely feel next to your skin. If you ignite a tiny bit of fabric you can estimate the content of natural fibers: if it melts it is mostly petrochemical-derived synthetics, if it burns it has mostly natural fibers. You can imagine that fabric that melts into your skin during a fire is less than ideal. On the other hand, cotton gauze can burn furiously and be equally dangerous.
My vote is always for as much natural fiber as I can manage. Sometimes it’s hard to find clothing made of natural fibers because synthetics have become ubiquitous and tend to be inexpensive. Cheap clothing cheaply constructed is not a bargain. Buy the best clothing you can afford, made of good fabrics and well constructed. It will last longer. Consignment shops often have excellent quality designer clothing made of high quality natural fabrics. Don’t let the fashion fool you. These clothes are made of the best materials and built to last though they are usually worn for one season and tossed aside. That just means more for you and me at prices we can afford.
Accessorizing is not just for fashion mavens. You’ll need gloves, hats, scarves and shoes or boots appropriate to whatever tasks you’re performing. In the summer my husband and I use what we fondly call Amish sunscreen: long-sleeved shirts and hats with brims. Sunburn is painful; skin cancer is lethal. Grown-ups put on gloves before their hands start to blister, not after. Shoes that fit and are appropriate to the task should not need to be explained. And don’t forget the dry socks.
A Side Note: In some unusual circumstances, the best clothes are no clothes at all. Two cases in point: 1) the five women who rowed across the Atlantic recently found that their seawater damp clothing caused sores where it rubbed. By rowing without clothes, they literally saved their skin; 2) while serving on a Pacific island, my father found that by placing his clothing under palm fronds during the brief daily monsoon, he had dry clothes for the rest of the day.
You’ve selected your clothing and tried it out in the sorts of situations where it will be expected to serve. Now how do you make it last? First, your clothes may need clothes. An apron, whether you’re a cook or a blacksmith, will preserve your clothing. Protective sleeves, butchers’ coats, and smocks can be washed repeatedly sparing your everyday clothing and making it last longer.
Clean clothes survive longer than dirty ones, but clothing doesn’t need to be washed every time you wear it. Washing clothing too often wears it out. Clothing that is to be stored for any period of time must be clean because insects and mildew are attracted to body oil, deodorant, food stains, and other soil. Clothing should be completely dry before storing. To wash, sort fabrics by weight (towels should not be washed with sheets, for example) and by color, light colors separate from dark colors. Keep the red socks out of the whites to avoid having pink undies.
Soap or detergent? Detergent, made from petrochemicals, does a fairly good job of cleaning clothes, but you will find some types of grease stains will not be removed. Soap, made from natural fats or oils, will remove stains better, but soap forms a precipitate with hard water that can cause fabrics to become gray and dull. Vinegar or citrus juice added to the wash water will prevent this, as will washing in soft water (such as rain water). Baking soda also changes the pH of the water in the other direction (making it alkaline rather than acidic) and will make the detergent foam better in hard water making it clean more effectively. Dulling of dark colors is not caused by washing in hot water but by lint and residue clinging to the fabric. Vinegar in the final rinse will reduce this. Salt added to wash water can prevent yellowing of whites and combined with vinegar will remove mildew from fabric. If you are washing in a tub rather than in a machine, my friend tells me you are better off using a bathroom plunger than the metal one she bought for the job. It rusted and left stains on her clothes.
Never wash clothing in cold water. Cold water does not destroy bacteria or prevent mildew. Use the warmest water safe for the clothing, but not so hot it will degrade the fabric. However, you should use water hot enough to purify fabric that needs it, for example, clothing that has been in flood water or has been exposed to disease or infection.
I have often heard it said that line drying is better for clothing than using a drier. However, a woman of my acquaintance found the opposite to be true. This will depend somewhat on how you are drying your clothes and whether or not they are subject to wind and sun. Sunlight can degrade fabrics (especially silk) and cause colors to fade, but it can also destroy mildew. How you dry your clothes will depend on what is available to you. Clothing can be line dried in the winter as well as in the summer, but it may take longer. If drying takes so long the fabric mildews as during prolonged damp weather, find an alternative, such as drying indoors on lines or even furniture. A drying rack in or a retractable line over the bathtub works well.
Before washing clothes make any repairs that are required. Tears become worse while laundering. Also, close zippers, turn sweaters and trousers inside out, and empty pockets – pens and chap sticks in a washer or drier will do your clothing no good. Tie drawstrings loosely to prevent them from pulling out, hook bras or other items with hooks to keep them from snagging other garments (or wash them in a net bag or a pillow case).
Storing wool, other animal fibers and fur present a special problem because of clothing moths. The tiny larvae eat the protein in the hair or fiber and leave holes. Wool blended with synthetics is less attractive to them. They can be thwarted by several means. Freezing infested clothing for about two weeks or heating fabric to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for thirty minutes will kill the larvae. They do not like sun and movement so hanging clothes on a sunny, breezy clothes line will cause them to drop off. Also, soaking in soapy water for twelve hours will drown the little nibblers. Once you’re sure the larvae are dead, store animal fiber clothing to prevent it from becoming reinfested. First, the clothing should be absolutely clean and dry. Avoid moth balls – they are toxic to more than moths, and the really awful smell is very difficult to banish. Old houses often have closets with windows in them specifically for storing woolens, but to be safe, add other precautions. Moths are deterred by the smell of cedar (the classic cedar trunk was designed to store woolens), eucalyptus, pennyroyal, lavender, rosemary, mint, cloves or lemon. Any non-edible barrier will stop the moths from getting to your clothes. This can be a paper bag tightly sealed or a well sealed cotton pillow case. Both of these allow air to circulate. I do not recommend plastic for storage as any trapped moisture can cause problems like mildew.
To repair and maintain your clothing you will need certain tools. Not enough can be said about the value of good needles. You should have them in several sizes, appropriate to whatever you’re repairing, whether stockings or leather.
Here is my basic tool kit. You’ll obviously change it to suit your needs.
- Needles in various weights and sizes: sharps sizes 3 through 9; yarn needles; others as needed such as darning, embroidery, sail maker's (also used for heavy leather), and upholstery
- Thread in regular sewing weight and coat weight in an assortment of colors but at least white, black, and whatever most of your clothes are
- A needle threader if you have poor eyesight
- Safety pins in assorted sizes. Large ones can be used to thread elastic or draw strings through waistbands
- Buttons of various sizes; snaps; hooks and eyes; grommets and a grommet setter. I have zippers, but I don’t recommend them. More on this later.
- Scissors, large for cutting fabric and small for snipping threads; scissors sharpener
- Loop and hook tape; elastic in assorted widths; cording for draw strings and macramé buttons and frogs
- Tape measure
- Seam ripper – not essential but handy
- Pins and pin cushion with an emery bag (the little metal-filing filled bag for sharpening pins)
- Thimble – I rarely use mine, but they’re nice to have
- Patching material
- Also handy but not essential are seam tape, fusible bonding web (Stitch Witchery), liquid seam sealant (Fray Check), tailor’s chalk
A really good book on basic clothing repair and construction is worth the investment. Always make repairs as soon as possible. When adding a patch, make sure the edges are finished to prevent raveling and the patch is sufficiently large to be stitched to areas of strong fabric. A patch that is stronger than the material it is stitched to can tear out leaving a bigger hole. Creative patching can improve the appearance of worn garments, clever patching can be nearly invisible. Preemptive patches placed in areas of hard wear (leather patches on knees or elbows) can add years of life to garments.
Learn how to darn, practice doing it and wear the repaired clothing to see if the repair causes rubbing, blistering or discomfort. If so, toss or recycle the repaired item and try it again. Practice makes perfect and if you wait until you have nothing but holey socks to learn to repair them, you’ve waited too long. In most garments zippers are much harder to replace than you might think. Often to remove the old zipper and put in a new one requires nearly complete deconstruction of the item. Replacing the broken zipper with loop and hook (like Velcro) or with buttons is easier. For a coat, toggles with looped fasteners work well.
Choose your clothing wisely and take good care of it. Still, however careful you are, sooner or later everything you own will wear out. Reusing, repurposing, salvage and creation from scratch are the next steps. These require much more time and effort, so saving your clothes saves you both.