(Wool jacket, wool sweater, wool hat, wool skirt, goretex gloves, leather boots. Edinburgh, December 2009).

You may (or may not) remember that, during 2009, I set myself a project to walk every day, and to think about walking. I initially attempted to photograph and calculate the distance of my daily walks, but this part of the project quickly fell by the wayside: it is difficult to take any sort of decent photo in the dark or in the rain, and I rapidly became bored with the pedometer — in fact, I found that the things that interested me least about my walking were how fast I was going, or how far I’d been. Other aspects of the project proved very thought provoking, however, and I shall try to group some of these thoughts together here over the next few days.

(wool vest, wool base layer, linen shorts, wool tights, leather boots. Beinn An Dothaidh, April 2009).

One of the issues that has preoccupied me consistently over the course of the project has been appropriate walking garb. In terms of my daily commute, I soon realised that walking everywhere meant abandoning heeled shoes, and selecting outfits that were smart enough to teach in, but comfortable enough to work up a bit of steam in, when rushing to the station and back. But weekends meant a different kind of walking — in the mountains. Over the past twelve months, I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with different garments and different layers of garments, in order to find the most flexible, light, versatile, and comfortable combination to get about in while walking up hill and down dale. It will come as no surprise to you that I favour wool for just about everything but the necessary waterproof shell. I stick this shell (comprising gloves, light jacket, and — at the very last resort — pants) in my backpack, but when the weather is dry, I enjoy comfortable wool-clad walking in all weathers.

(wool headband, wool base layer, wool sweater, cotton shorts, wool tights, wool socks, leather boots. Eildons, October 2009).

You will note that my current walking shorts are cotton, but I do have a pattern to make myself some tweed shorts, and, when I’ve done so, I shall have an entirely woollen walking outfit. Now, you may attribute this to my inordinate love of all things sheepy, but my experience has told me that the warmth, wicking and layering properties of wool really are superior to those of any synthetic fabric. In wool, one does not stink, even after several days in the hills, and nor does one’s clothing produce enough electricity to light a fire when one simply moves about (Tom’s synthetic Ron Hill and Helly combo generates visible bright green sparks). My favourite walkers, like the legendary Alfred Wainwright, often also favoured wool. Wainwright’s son recalled that: “Dad always walked in his shoes and his suits . . . he had four suits, all tweed. His best one was for council meetings. His second best was for work. Third best for walking. Fourth best for gardening.”* Now, Wainwright had a tweedy sort of a mindset, and he was also a bloke. If, toward the end of his walking career, he had wanted to change his woolly walking uniform, he might have selected from the wide range of innovative clothing that was then beginning to be made accessible by the British pioneers of contemporary outdoor wear: men like Mike Parsons of Karrimor , Pete Hutchinson, or those two Newcastle guys who started Berghaus. Things are much more complicated for women, who, in both historical and contemporary terms, have not been served well by the outdoor industry. I have talked about this before, but I feel I must reiterate how consistently frustrated I am by the poor cut and design of women’s commercially manufactured outdoor clothing. It also bothers me that I cannot buy quality merino base layers without them being marked with some sign or other of what is assumed to be the feminine. Are their masculine equivalents decorated with footballs, tractors or other inanely gendered visual cues? No? Then why are all of icebreaker’s women’s merino tops daubed with fookin flowers? Why don’t these (otherwise admirable) manufacturers realise that it is perfectly possible to be feminine out of doors without being pink or ornamental? Size is also an issue. Because I’ve found that manufactured outdoor wear for women is always cut too large, and too poorly, I have resorted in the past to buying boys clothes.** In this respect, my choice of manufactured outdoor clothing is as limited as that of a Victorian woman climber, who would buy boys knickerbockers, to be worn in secret under her long skirts.

(wool vest, wool knickers, wool base layer, wool sweater, wool tights, wool socks, wool hat, wool cowl (thanks, Mel), wool gloves, goretex gloves, Rab pertex and down gillet, cotton shorts, wool skirt, leather boots. Crummock Water, Jan 1st, 2010)

Now, on the flat, or in a tent, it strikes me that a heavy skirt is not necessarily a bad thing. The thick woollen one I am wearing above, for example, is as windproof and cosy as a blanket. It is great for walking around Edinburgh in the current arctic windchill, and is also fantastic when one is emerging from one’s tent in sub-zero temperatures, like those we enjoyed on New Year’s eve. In such circumstances, a wool skirt can protect the legs with a warmth that cannot be beaten. But would I want to wear it out in the hills, or even carry it in my pack up a mountain? No I certainly would not.

Charles Boutibonne, The Mountain Climbers, 1868

Certainly, it is impossible to imagine ascending any sort of hill in the heavy hitched skirts Burberry recommended as a “practical” women’s climbing wear in 1907, let alone the garb worn by the women depicted in Charles Boutibonne’s painting above. While the seated woman is reasonably comfortably dressed in a wool skirt that seems to be hitched, pinned, and divided, the figure standing to her right is clad in a light walking dress of impractical cream hue. This woman is also clearly wearing corsets, as well as a gauze-veiled hat that would be both useless and indeed dangerous in such rocky terrain. Laced in her stays, she gazes with what is perhaps a certain degree of envy at the nimble child (an acceptably infantilised male guide for this all-female party) in his easy-to-wear shirt and breeches. And its a good job the group seem to have abandoned their parasol, because it would be completely useless in that wind. Now, there are things I like about this painting: its drama, its movement, and the way it depicts nineteenth-century women in a wild landscape, looking robust and physically capable (albeit inappropriately dressed). But it is clear that this painting — just like the photographs that depict women climbers during this era — is a sort of staged fantasy. It is all too easy to read nineteenth-century photographs of women’s outdoor activity as direct representations of reality, when, in fact, these images are governed by conventions of genre, and rules of respectability, just like Boutibonne’s painting. That early photographs of skirted women climbers are carefully staged for the public eye is a point is repeatedly made by Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, whose Invisible on Everest is one of the best-researched and most interesting of the many books I’ve recently read on the subject of women’s walking and climbing (those who are interested in further reading will find a short list at the end of this post). Rose and Parsons describe two worlds for the nineteenth-century woman climber: the public world of the valley, the chalet, staged photographs, and long skirts, and the invisible, private, and immensely enabling world that women experienced in the mountains: a world of enjoyable physical exertion, and clothing that was both comfortable and appropriate for the conditions. Rose and Parsons describe a “complex charade where [women] only appeared to follow dress codes whilst privately flouting them — along with many other conventions — as soon as they were out of the valley.”

(Freda Du Faur)

Freda Du Faur — the first woman to climb New Zealand’s Mount Cook — regarded it as imperative to look feminine as well as physically capable, and was never photographed without a skirt covering her knickerbockers and puttees, as she is seen here. The redoubtable Lizzie Le Blond, meanwhile — who routinely climbed in knickerbockers and stockings — also felt it necessary to don her skirts whenever she was in public view. According to an anecdote relayed by Rebecca Brown, after a strenuous day’s climbing in 1908, Le Blond returned to discover that her skirts (which she had carefully secreted under a cairn) had blown away. She crept back to the village in her knickerbockers, and sent her guide to her hotel to fetch another skirt while she hid herself from view. The guide apparently returned with an evening gown, in which outlandish garb she made her way back to civilisation.*** While many of these otherwise intrepid walking women clearly felt the need to conform to conservative ideals of female respectability where their appearance was concerned, Constance Barnicoat, whose climbing achievements included an ascent of Switzerland’s Grosser Schreckhorn in the winter of 1911, was unusual in her open advocation of climbing in boy’s clothes: “skirts, even the shortest, are almost impracticable. I promptly sent for proper boys boots . . . and generally rigged myself out as much like a boy as possible with sweater, knickers, and puttees to my knees. . . whatever arguments may be urged against a boy’s dress for a woman anywhere within range of civilisation, those arguments do not hold good in such wilds as we went through.”**** Despite what climbing women might have said or did in public, then, in the paradoxically hidden world of the great outdoors they were whipping off their heavy skirts and restricting stays, and shimmmying up mountains in shorts and stockings.

J.F Willumsen, En Bjergbestigerske (1904) (Thankyou, Lise, for the heads-up about this marvellous painting)

For low-level walks, however, I still think a good skirt can be a good thing. Dorothy Wordsworth’s skirts clearly received a lot of outdoor wear (from the amount of walking and mending her journals describe), and I often picture her moving about the landscape in her skirts and stockings, observing Cumbria’s characteristic tricks of the light, and gathering mosses and lichens, whenever I’m in the Lake District. I also love this early twentieth-century Danish depiction of a be-skirted walking woman, which I think suggests a genuine sense of feminine ease and strength in the outdoors. As for myself, I have decided to supplement the deficiencies of contemporary women’s outdoor wear by producing an entirely home-made walking outfit. As well as the forthcoming tweed shorts, I am now in the process of knitting myself a serviceable, warm and hard-wearing base layer (out of some Jamieson and Smith Shetland lace weight). And after that, I intend to take on the interesting task of producing my own pair of knitted longies from scratch (rather than the two pairs of wool tights I’m wearing here)

(wool head band, wool base layer, wool sweater, wool gloves, cotton shorts, two pairs of wool tights. Pentlands, November 2009).

*Hunter Davies, Wainwright: the Biography (1995), 123
**The women’s outdoor garments designed by Sheffield-based Rab Carrington are a happy exception to this rule.
***Rebecca Brown, Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering (2002), 50
****Barnicoat, “Where no Woman Ever Went Before” Wide World Magazine (March 1904), 566.

See also:
Arlene Blum, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (1998 ed)
Jill Marie Maclachlan, Peak Performances: Cultural and Autobiographical Constructions of the Victorian Female Mountaineer PhD Thesis, (UBC, 2004)
David Mazel, ed, Mountaineering Women: Stories of Early Climbers (1994)
Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers (2003) (Thankyou, John, for the recommendation of this title).
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2006 ed)

Recommendations of books any of you have enjoyed about women’s walking, climbing or general outdoor activities would be very welcome indeed.

70 thoughts on “walking dress

  1. Loved your post! I am male but have a female partner who finds pink and badly-fitting walking gear for women frustrating. She also wears cotton shorts and tights, or loose cotton harem pants when warmer. Otherwise we both wear merino wool layers and cotton wax (Barbour) or Ventile waterproofs.

    I sometimes walk in a kilt with woollen or angora (lovely fabric — try it!) stockings. It’s a proper 18 oz wool kilt, 8 yards long. I have two for Scottish country dancing. Water just doesn’t settle on the kilt’s fabric (not for a few hours, anyway) and, because of all the pleats, is warm and snug. So don’t rule out the usefulness of skirts! A Barbour jacket and kilt keep water out all day in constant rain on British mountains.

    I find walking trousers — for women or men — awful. The knees constrict walking and the bottoms just collect mud and water. Breeches, or plus fours or knickerbockers, are much undervalued. Hilltrek of Abredeenshire do superb Ventile men’s breeches but would not fit women well, I fear. http://www.hilltrek.co.uk/acatalog/copy_of_Clova_Ventile_Breeches.html

    Tweed breeches are still made for shooting but they are too heavy and stylised for walking. Ventile is a close-woven cotton developed in the Second World War for pilots’ immersion suits and resists water ingress for hours. It is totally breathable. So I recommend the Hilltrek breeches for men! Rohan used to make breeches in their polycotton fabric but, like the Bags, the cut was awkward for men and women.

    In the summer, I walk in long shorts, again with wool stockings to keep ticks off my lower legs (to lower the risk of tick bites and Lyme disease).


  2. what a lovely post!! i just love woolens, actually searching for some knickers. someone has tips where to get woolen tights? i’ve been looking everywhere but..


  3. Someone linked this from Rav… awesome post! I walk a bit around New England and have been acquiring more woolens for that, too.

    Have you read Off the Beaten Track by Cyndi Smith? It’s about women mountaineers and adventurers in western Canada, before WWI.


  4. This is a wonderful post and reminded me of my early years when I was 5′ 10″ tall by age 12 and wore only boys and mens clones because no girls clothes at that time would fit. I knit and sewed all my own clothes but if I had to buy went straight to the men’s department, finding they were better made, better quality and suited my “outdoorsy personality”. Never was into pink. Now I love it. One comment you might enjoy – under all those lovely side saddle lady horsewomen with their hats and veils jumping fences after the hound, were a pair of jodphurs, the right leg wrapped around a horn to help stay on the seat of the saddle and the left leg in the stirrup. After mounted, the long, lovely skirt that started on the right side covered both legs, made a graceful arc and was buttoned back up on the left waist. The whip was held in the right hand as was customary by all the riders. To dismount a gentleman gracefully lifted the lady off the horse, unhooking her right leg and keeping her legs concealed by the skirt. This get-up is still worn by side saddle riders showing today!


  5. Having read this post a few days ago, it immediately came to mind when I opened my mum’s copy of last November’s Saga magazine which she had passed on to me (It’s a surprisingly good read!) Anyway, in the mag is a great article about the 1959 expedition of women to climb Cho Oyu. It does mention their clothing, which sounds a little unorthodox! Luckily, it’s online, and so I have found you the link…


    Hope you find it interesting :-)


  6. Fantastic and fascinating post!
    This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I too am a petite outdoorsy type living in a climate of inclimate weather and hills. I live in SE Alaska and have a truly lovely job walking dogs. I spend the majority of my time outside in all weather conditions (but mostly rain) and though I do love what I do I struggle with poorly designed, poorly fit clothing what seems like constantly!
    I have knit a few pieces in my own almost entirely woolen walking uniform and often hike in skirts but it is hard to subject my handknits to the added rigors of multi-dog walls!
    Your post has given me lots of new ideas to play with and thanks so much for the reading list! I feel like my interest in creating the perfect walking wardrobe is renewed and I am excited to keep working on it!


  7. I read a book from one of your fellow countrymen, whose name is Rory, about walking in Afghanistan Mountains, it’s a great great book. No feminism though in this book, but are you Scots great walkers, I mean as a way of life?


  8. Hi Kate
    Another great post! My research is with the fire service, and I know that female fire fighters have terrible trouble getting gear to fit – all the standard issue is for guys, so even if you have big feet, your ankles tend to be too narrow to be able to wear their boots properly. Same with gloves. I’ve heard of broken ankles and wrists caused by ill fitting work wear, and it certainly makes it very hard for women to compete on an equal footing to their male colleagues.

    On walking, I think your take on what to wear for walking is fascinating. My background is in criminology, and I’m really interested in how people walk in their urban environments, and especially how people take crime preventive steps in their daily lives. this extends to who wears what where when – think gang colours in the wrong area, walking home through red light districts etc. I think it’s so interesting how differently what is essentially the same subject can be researched.

    Cheerio for now.


  9. I see one or two people mentioned Rohan. Although I don’t believe their gear is quite as good as it used to be, it is still exceptionally good quality and usually in decent colours. They make merino base layers, top and bottom, in a nice non-sexist black :-) I also find the rest of their range is generally much less offensive colour-wise – I like to blend in on the hill, rather than head-to-toe day-glo, as I like to see the wildlife.

    I can HEARTILY recommend their Hilltop jacket – it’s nearly knee-length, fully waterproof and windproof, and comes in a nice loden green. Ideal for British soggy conditions, and you don’t get a wet bum. For those of us who are more bountiful-sized, they often go up to a size 18 or 20 as well.

    No I don’t work for them, but I am a long-term fan! I find their trousers can fit oddly, especially the mighty Bags, but they do describe them as a “Marmite” fit – love it or hate it :-)


  10. Whoot! Fookin’ flowers had me snorting peppermint tea from my nose, not very lady like behaviour, no skirts would disguise that! I second isabella bird, I found her very likeable indeed and the title is fabulous! Thanks for amazing links and love the knitting wardrobe, the tweed shorts and base layer will be excellent. (the skirts are fab too!) 21st century land girl look! X


  11. I’m so glad I found your blog. Visiting you here gives me the sort of mental vacation from my day-to-day work that is completely refreshing. I adore your photos, your writing style, your knit patterns, and now I’m longing to break out the tweeds and sew real clothing for myself for the first time in years. Hon, you just might be responsible for getting me back into skirts after a very, very long hiatus!
    Thank you!


  12. So many women dissatisfied with outdoor wear – and so many good suggestions that I will be checking out (even though I am a fair weather walker). I borrowed a Rohan merino baselayer (black! no pink or flowers in sight!) for a trip to Iceland, and although I did find it a tad itchy, I was astonished by its non-stinkiness after a few days (I didn’t think it could really be true) – and even more astonished that my boyfriend’s one was much the same!

    I do think that a lot of the big brand outdoor wear is made to have the outward show of practicality and utility – and as it seems to be beyond them to make it flattering, pinkness and flowers denote – maybe not so much femininity, but ‘definitely not-masculinity’. And as the garments are really only lightly used (rainy shopping trips and gardening), so the companies get sales without the customers ever demanding better.


  13. Dear Kate,

    Do you know the book “Love Among the Butterflies: The Travels and Adventures of a Victorian Lady” by Margaret Fountaine? If not, you should.
    She wrote a second book called “Butterflies and Late Loves.” She was an intrepid British Victorian era entomologist and traveller, likely a great walker as well. I highly recommend these for you, both available in the US at least from Amazon.

    I don’t think much about walking clothes, but I do like Title Nine, an American company, for yoga wear and lightweight “skorts” which are my favorite warm weather apparel, suitable much of the year where I live in the southern US.



  14. I agree that women’s outdoor clothing leaves a lot to be desired. The best of the lot (that I have found so far in North America) is Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada – many more synthetics than wool, but if they make it for men, they make it for women, and no flowers, or at least not very many.

    For another approach to women’s outdoor clothing check out the picture of Josephine Peary in Greenland in 1891-92 here http://www.bowdoin.edu/news/archives/1academicnews/005571.shtml
    She cobbled together an outfit combining traditional caribou and sealskin clothing (boots especially) with a modest skirt of some sort, although her outfit still managed to scandalize some of the men on the expedition. She made a point of doing some walking or snowshoeing everyday all through the winter in northern Greenland, excepting during blizzards.


  15. What a great post! I wonder if Lady Franklin hid her skirts under a rock? Apparently she was quite an avid adventurer and thought nothing of climbing a mountain or two. If you’re unfamiliar, her husband was the governor of New Zealand and then went on to perish in the Canadian arctic while trying to locate the Northwest Passage.
    I’m afraid I have the opposite problem to yours when it comes to “outdoorsy” clothing. I can’t find a pair of pants that doesn’t fit like sausage casings! It seems that the “outdoorsy” clothing here in Ontario is designed for six foot tall waifs! It bothers me to no end that I am expected to be a skinny minny before partaking in any sort of outdoor activity. I suppose men’s clothing would fit around my hips but then the inseam is much to long and hangs nearly to my knees! Perhaps a homemade walking skirt is my answer. I don’t quite have the skills to make a pair of pants but I could most likely handle a skirt.


  16. Absolutely love that skirt!!! What a great outfit and the splashes of red are so cheery on a grey day! Where did you get the skirt – did you make it?


  17. On my walk this morning I wore flannel lined jeans that were purchased in the men’s department. because it was almost 20* I didn’t wear my wool legwarmers. I had on an old wool jacket that belonged to my father. a cowl around my neck and a muskrat hat that my nephew gave to me. I dress in layers and don’t worry if the clothing is male or female I just want to be warm. but I do wish I cut as fasionable figure as you do Kate.
    I can’t wait to see more of your pictures of the ‘year of walking’.


  18. KATE – you look great in your skirt red hat and red bag — I too have started to wear skirts exclusively- but its almost impossible to find wool tights here in ont , canada – I have woolen underwear from years ago that are made from a nice fine wool[mens] , but can I find any now —no- even the sking tights are silk , nice but just not for me – I wear synthetic tights that are footless and my woolen socks- have been contemplating knitting legwarmers too

    -I laugh —you have to get boys clothes – wish I was so svelt to be able to wear that small size

    – I so agree with this thing about pink and flowers for women and trucks for guys— cannot stand it

    – I often buy guys things just for the quality , thats not available in womens clothes

    – love reading your posts — guess we just have design and make out own wardrobe — which is what you endeavor to do—-hurray—-best pat


  19. I agree with everyone else – a terrific post.

    As I need a clothing size rather larger than you (!), I get irritated when walking clothing isn’t available in larger sizes for women. After all, walking is one thing you can continue to do even if you don’t “look” athletic. I’ve had to buy men’s stuff too – apparently one is only required to be a sylph-like walker if also female.

    I also get warm very quickly (& always did even when thinner) and have found all the “breathable” claims to be, frankly, nonsense. I will also be looking into the possibilities of wool, as I have been finding that in the recent very cold weather, I wrap up warm, get hot and then start to feel chilled later on, inside my damp clothing.


  20. Oh, hear, hear on flaming flowers (and pink, everywhere) and poor cut. Apparently the belief of clothing manufacturers, even practical clothing manufactures, is *still* that to be feminine is to be little-girly; and in the latter case, that women are misshapen men. I discovered during my Cumbrian childhood that voluminous skirts and woolly tights are highly satisfactory everyday walking (and cycling, and waiting at bus stops) garb, but not, as you observe, half so suitable for the up and down stuff, or even for hopping over stiles. It hadn’t previously occurred to me that those stalwart women one sees in old photographs might remove their skirts once out of view of the camera, but it acquires obviousness once pointed out..

    Absent sensible alternatives, smart woollen trews (with the aforementioned woolly tights) do very well, besides being quite forgiving of being toasted in front of the fire. Tweed shorts, however, sound even more sensible, & rather stylish.


  21. Fascinating entry! I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never really thought about or heard of Victorian women climbers before. Thanks for the bibliography, I’ll definitely be reading more.

    Also, I’m looking forward to seeing the outcome of your knitting and sewing. You are such a fashion and crafting inspiration to me.


  22. Do check out Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Nether Garments. She tells you how to design a pair that’ll fit you. They’re in The Knitter’s Almanac (which I’ve just discovered appears to be available on Google Books!).


  23. Speaking of boys clothes I had the great experience of purchasing a boys wool sweater and an outdoor jacket in the 1960’s at a nearby department store…I had saved money for both and was so excited to jump out of the girls department and make my own choices. ( I must have been about 14) When the clerk at the register went to ring up my selections she asked if my mother knew I was buying boy’s clothes and threatened to call her!
    I boldly exclaimed it was my own money and I could do as I please!
    She looked down her nose at me and reluctantly rang up the purchase….and I still have the sweater…some forty years later!



  24. A wondrous post; thank you so much for writing this.

    This post reminds me of the presentation given at that feminist conference in Newcastle on ‘Les Cordees’ who were, I think, a group of French women mountaineers who also used to hide their disabling feminine attire underneath boulders when they ascended away from public (male) gaze and into a realm of enabling women’s climbing that existed for them in the mountains.

    I too am very preoccupied with the correct clothes for walking – especially socks – and one of the things that interests me, is how empowering it is to be able to create garments for your own purposes and *for your own body.*

    My frustrations with garments in the women’s outdoor walking zone are similar – perhaps surprisingly – with the frustrations I had with the design of living aids when I created the Missability Radio Show; the one-size-fits-all and crassly-decorated approach often overlooks the specific requirements of an individual, and can be intensely disempowering. It’s a tenuous comparison, but at the heart of it lies the female body and all the conventions surrounding it…

    …I love thinking about clothes and walking, creating clothes for walking in and land-testing those clothes. I’m not as far along with my own walking outfit as you are but the few things I have knitted provide invaluable warmth and comfort when I am out walking and the best things about wool in my opinion are that

    1. it breathes and wicks
    2. it is warm, even when it is damp
    3. it doesn’t smell!
    4. it is light – or it can be light – to carry
    5. it can become part of our imaginative relationship with the landscape, through its connections to history, plants, places and animals, and this imaginative dimension of walking is as important in my experience of walking, as the practical considerations.


  25. I miss the early morning walks that I did last summer – but with no pavements or streetlights, early morning walking isn’t possible just now, and I rarely manage to fit it in later in the day …..

    ps – I’m itching at the thought of wooly knickers!!


  26. Where did you get that skirt from, I’ve been googling all weekend trying to find nice skirts to no avail!
    Another woman who is generally dissatisfied with the fit of outdoor clothing for women. I just seem to end up in the blokes stuff which to add insult to injury is also cheaper!
    I knitted a pir of Nether Garments (EZ) in sock weight yarn a couple of summers ago, they’re a bit warm for walking in, but when I go out climbing they’re amazing.


  27. I thought of you today while darning a hole in my tomato-red felted wool Icebreaker jacket.

    For outdoor base layers, I wear the fine merino tops that are my standard semi-formal work-wear. When they develop holes or ladders, they’re relegated to hiking. No flowers, and come in a huge range of cuts and colours.


  28. Love this post! As a walker, knitter and former academic myself I find what you have to say very interesting. Great photos too. I discovered the warmth of long wool skirts in winter a while ago, but somehow it never occurred to me hike the hills in them. Good on you, and you look gorgeous too! I’ve been eyeing up the undergarment patterns in my mother’s & grandmother’s old knitting books, but haven’t got around to knitting anything yet – so let us know how you get on.


  29. I enjoy your posts so much. In particular, I learn from the historical content, always nicely paired to current problem solving, ie., how to be warm out of doors. Looking forward to future blogs and patterns. You are a wonderful knitter.


  30. I agree with you about the women’s clothing issues as far as modern day cut is concerned. Being a larger size, I find that most outdoor and athletic brands get longer, not wider, as the size increases. I also sympathize with Alison’s pink aversion. Why must everything female be pink? I recently ran a 5K (which admittedly was a women-only event) for which the accompanying gift was a fleece scarf in baby pink. Even if I could wear pink and not look like I’ve recently had the flu, I wouldn’t.


  31. Wonderful article! I trekked in the Himalayas (Nepal) back in the early 1990s and was advised that women were not to wear pants. I worn a mid-calf length cotton skirt and hiking boots which was very comfortable and, if temperatures allow, would be my preferred wear.


  32. What a fascinating topic! I am reading ‘In Search of Wales’ by H V Morton which despite being written in 1932 is still a valid travel guide for Wales in many ways. Anyway, last night H V was climbing Snowdon and encountered what he refers to as ‘two Amazons’! See what you think of his comments, they underline all that you have said above. In my very old book it is Chapter 8 section 5. The book is easily available even now in secondhand bookshops. I am loving the book and plan to visit some of the places mentioned on our trip around the UK in May.


  33. A great post! I have recently started doing alot of walking each day, i love it but i am always too hot or too cold, after reading this i’m going to try multiple wool layers with a waterproof xx


  34. Recently I fell in love again with wool, especially because it doesn’t smell after sweating in it. I’m trying to fashion some long underwear from a fine merino knit I was able to find at a fabric store here and am looking forward to hiking in them and staying warm and dry. Smartwool looked okay in the stores, but was well out of my price range.

    If you are looking for a good read, check out “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” by the world traveller and popular writer, Isabella L. Bird. Here is an excerpt from her note added to the second edition:

    “For the benefit of other lady travellers, I wish to explain that my “Hawaiian riding dress” is the “American Lady’s Mountain Dress,” a half-fitting jacket, a skirt reaching to the ankles, and full Turkish trousers gathered into frills falling over the boots,–a thorougly serviceable and feminine costume for mountaineering and other rough travelling, as in the Alps or any other part of the world.

    I.L.B. November 27, 1879″


  35. Can you all access Smartwool products over there? Lovely merino base layers, and much less gross in terms of girlifying than other companies. We’re obviously on very different ends of the size spectrum so I can’t speak to fit for you but it may be worth a lookseee if you find you in the end you need more longies than you have the will to knit :)


  36. love the history & insight as usual … great photos …

    for nicely cut WARM base layer woolies that are not terribly girly (yet definitely made to fit them) try Ibex (I don’t know if they have a UK outlet, but I imagine so, in these days of easy web access). they even make wool skirts! haven’t tried winter hiking in mine yet though …

    PS. when is the pattern for Meru (or was it Manu? the gathered neck sweater) coming? eagerly awaiting!


  37. I so agree with this post!

    I don’t do so much outdoors stuff now but I’ve still lived in my Icebreaker (lilac but bought before the flower phase came in) and cheap charity shop jumpers all winter. In winter I used to row in some wool as well as I got sick of washing synthetics all the time (as in daily!).

    I too hate the way outdoor clothes for women are either a) all pink b) sized nothing like normal womens clothing. I am 5ft 9 and outdoor clothing for women seems unusually short. Most jackets are halfway up my back and I just have to accept waterproof trousers will be stupidly short. When I lived in Canada the womens stuff was much better-I have a lovely primaloft jacket (not pink!) from MEC which I layered over the top of multiple wool layers-warm enough to stand around waiting for buses in -20!

    New Zealanders (well a few years ago anyway) seem to wear very similar stuff to what you do-both men and women wear merino leggings and shorts of some kind, wool baselayer and then waterproof jacket and gaitors if it starts raining.

    Personal experience suggest a lot of outdoor gear is marketing. Frankly in the UK climate you are going to get a bit damp. At least in wool you are warm and damp.


  38. This is very thought provoking! It reminds me very strongly of my experiences as an ice hockey player. Women aren’t allowed to check or fight like the men. We have to play nice and all. And the PINK! Pink gloves, pink laces, pink berloody everything. I still wear it though, because it amuses me to be so girly in a male dominated sport.

    Thanks for this, it’s really good! Good luck with your woollen walking outfit. While I’d love to try that too, I routinely rip holes in my hockey socks. It’d be a pity to do that to a handknit!


  39. The annoying “girlifying” of sportswear is so widespread the industry has a phrase for it: “Shrink it and pink it.” Men get the lovely dark blues and grays and deep reds; women get teal and fushia and coral. Ugh. Not to mention a poor fit.


  40. I also am frustrated by the difficulty of finding good outdoor attire for women. The pink and floral themes feel so patronizing! I’m not sure exactly why, however. I do love the idea of wooly shorts. Thanks for a nice post.


  41. A very interesting post, thank you. I’ll third the Howies recommendation, their merino base layers are good but not cheap. I’m intrigued by the possibility of knitting a lace merino vest. I used a merino silk blend to knit a cowl that turned out surprisingly warm and not at all itchy…


  42. This was a very interesting read – thank you. I second the recommendation to go to Howies for nice merino things which don’t have butterflies and pixies all over them.


  43. I’m a hiker, a cyclist, and a quilter (and a former academic turned SAHM) so I’m loving your site. I spent too many years hiking in stinky polys, rinsing t-shirts at night in hostels before heading out the next day to walk again. Thank goodness for the resurgence of merino wool! And I’m so inspired by your posts about creating your own clothes and your gorgeous sweater cold snap dress. Here’s to many more outdoor adventures in 2010…


  44. not that you seem to need it, given that you seem to be very competently solving your walking dress issues yourself, but I have overall been very pleased with the company Patagonia (www.patagonia.com) in both its cut & style for women’s outdoor clothing (and its environmental policy, but that’s a whole another issue). though they do succumb to throwing the occasional feminine print in, they also tend to have a good collection of solid colors; and they even have wool baselayers available.


  45. I realise your committed to knitting your own base layer, but I just wanted to recommend some non-offensive female outdoor wear. (I sympathise immensely, I cycle to work and get insanely irritated by walking into the cycle shops to see the only options neon pink – because I MUST want pink if I’m a girl, right?… grrr – I crave sensible gloves to cycle in.). Howies have really great merino base layers for girls that aren’t pink and are a good fit. http://www.howies.co.uk/section.php/31/0


  46. thanks for this. i’m hooked on solnit, adore your knitting, and whole-heartedly agree on how annoying it is that most makers of outdoor clothing feel the need to “mark” women’s wear in the ways you describe, rather than simply make items to fit women. also, love your new year’s camping celebration. my best new year’s eve (a few years ago now) involved snowshoeing. a backcountry shelter, and a woodstove — clearly, it would have been made even better with a wool skirt!


  47. Thanks for linking to the Icebreaker site, if only because I found the wool leggings.

    But this quote from the page you linked to? “Ultimate warmth, ultimate comfort and ultimate sex appeal.”

    Obviously being sexy is just as important as being warm, right? RIGHT?


  48. A fascinating post! I have exactly the same feelings when it comes to women’s walking gear. I did a good deal of walking when I was younger and on family holidays, in Scotland, Wales and the Lake District, and remember the horror of the outdoor clothes shop. Even when my mother had stopped buying things for me to “grow into”, the sizing was ridiculous and the cuts laughable. I don’t want to look fashionable in the gear, but I would like my cagoule to convey some sense of where my arms are, among other things…

    As someone with an interest in historical clothing, I’ve ashamed to say I’ve never thought about this subject or the issues of propriety it must have brought up. Thank you for including the bibliography – I now long to read about female Victorian mountaineers and will try and get my hands on some of the books mentioned.


  49. I may have told you before that I made your headband from Jamiesons and lined it with alpaca for my daughter who lives in Calgary. For her boyfriend I made the skull cap from HelloYarn in wool and alpaca. They report that these garments are “the best” and so warm! I too have to walk and bus to work and couldn’t go back to store made hats, scarves and such at all. Strange that we discover “as we grow up” that new things are not always better than the “tried and true”..


  50. woooly knickers?!?! another google opportunity from your post kate. LOVE the wool skirt you’re wearing too… not just its aesthetics, but being sat quite still when out and about I get FROZEN. (today I bought a sheepskin to sit on to help that though)

    not really walking or wool related, but female outdoor activity and warmth: My sister was a sponsored snowboarder. Up until recently she wore mens jackets especially, as a) women’s jackets weren’t long enough for her torso b) they came in very girly girl designs and c) the technologies took longer to filter into the female designs.


  51. Fabulous; and thank you for the analysis and illustrations. Knowing that you are striding out, double-bagged woolly legs and all, and cutting a dash in some decent woolwear is an inspiration.


  52. wonderful! i am so interested in the “beautility” of woolen garments, the practical aspect mixed with the fashionable side. your walking outfits are great examples of the combination which i thinks lends woolens their longevity in wardrobes across time. thank you for the interesting post. no worry that you’ll stay warm… :)


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