What you wear on pilgrimage can greatly affect the journey you make. Not just in terms of looking great, feeling great etc. – because for a pursuit in which you are very often alone, this aspect of clothing matters less than at almost any other time in your life. On pilgrimage what really counts is the functionality of your clothes.
Pilgrimage requires that your clothes WORK WELL. Pilgrim’s needs are not equestrian, or surf, or bushcraft, or re-enactment, or sailing. The requirements of pilgrimage are unique unto themselves, and the corresponding fashion-house simply does not exist. It hasn’t done for at least 450 years. So we have to make it up as we go along.
The first rule of pilgrimage clothing is COMFORT. You need to wear things that allow you to move your body through the land, all day long, without restricting or constricting or rubbing or itching. If your trousers are too tight, you may look beautifully slim-legged in the photos, but you’ll wince along unconvincingly for the miles between. Aim for comfort, above all, for clothes that you almost cannot feel. If you don’t notice them, they’re doing their job well.
For many years – forever, before industrial mass-weaving techniques – clothes were made to fit the wearer. This is a great loss. Today, in our apparently advanced culture, we all wear clothes than fit none of us. Slightly too short in the arm, too long in the leg, too tight on the thigh or high on the gusset, getting used to ill-fitting clothes is simply the modern standard. Now, we’re not saying that pilgrims ought to do differently – but if you sought out a tailor for just one pair of special pilgrim trousers, those wooden beauties that fit just right, you would be a wiser pilgrim than most.
Read the Label – Know the Fabric
One of the ways that pilgrim clothing differs from ‘normal’ life is in attention to fabrics. As a rule, cotton fails. So does polyester. And this is 80% of the modern shop’s offerings in a swoop discarded.
The best material for British pilgrimage is wool. When the Romans arrives with their highly organised violence and wine trade, the Birrus Brittanicus was soon noted as the highest quality rainproof outdoor gear available. It became a highly prized commodity, and made Emperor Diocletian’s shortlist of the best goods traded across his Empire – the only item from Britain to make the grade! This was simply a hooded cloak, but what made it work so well was the quality of the wool and the tightness of the weave. It was enough to keep sentries warm by night on Hadrian’s Wall. If you’re warm, they flick back over your shoulders to open your front. If it’s windy, they can be tied round the middle into a tunic. This is good tech. But you can’t buy it. To the Romans, a birrus was worth 300kg of pork, or 500 l of cheap wine. Today, you have to make your own. The best wool is tightly woven, the same stuff they make regimental trousers from – a fabric called barathea. You can read about it on the bushcraft forums.
Today, humans have not really changed, we have just got used to living interior lives – in cars, homes, offices etc. And a little rain can send us into flurries of fear. It is as though we all suspect we might just melt. But we don’t, ever. It is the fear of cold and wet, far more than any actually discomfort they cause, that causes most suffering. A bit of water falling from the sky is no real bother – especially if you wear good wool.
If we invented it today, wool would be hailed as THE wonder fabric. We don’t mean the coarse itchy thick Christmas jumpers – but the superfine merino variety, smooth and beautiful. Wool is anti-bacterial – so it does not get stinky like rotten cotton. It is exothermic – so when wet, it actually gives out heat, rather than soaking it up like cotton. And it is renewable – although the ‘cloven hoofed plague’ is responsible for much environmental degradation on the hillsides of Britain, and historically has caused great displacement of communities in pursuit of individual wealth, wool still has the benefit of essentially growing from grass, and nothing needs to die to produce it. Cotton, on the other hand, requires enormous amounts of water – 25 bathfuls for one T-shirt – and all the (very possibly harmful) fertilisers and pesticides and fungicides and other sprays that cotton needs to grow intensively and out-compete its more naturally successful rivals in the field. But wool comes from the back of a sheep, who makes it from grass. It is barber-shop off-cuts from the field, and it does a far better job than any other fabric in existence.
Linen is also a wonder fabric, but harder to get hold of than wool, which in the form of Merino has enjoyed a boom in recent years in hiking shops. This is great news for pilgrims. Woollen t-shirts are now easily found, and work amazingly well – keeping you insulated from the heat in summer, and the cold in winter. One fabric to rule them all…
If you can, try to avoid synthetic clothing, unless it is recycled. On pilgrimage, it would go against a certain ethos to wear clothes that require planet-destroying industrial practises for their manufacture. Also, although plastic clothes can be very effective at keeping water off, they are always less breathable than their natural fibre counterparts. And you will very likely get just as wet from within, from the accumulation of sweat, than you ever would from the light rain you fearfully hide from.
Now, as much as we complain about cotton, there is another side to the story. The simple truth is, 99% of cotton-wear is rubbish. But 1% does marvellous things.
In the 1940s, Winston Churchill became aware how short a time RAF pilots survived when they crashed into the cold North Sea. The cold water sapped life quickly from the expensively trained pilots. So Winston commissioned his best fabric-minds to find a way to make things better. And so was invented…Ventile, the wonder fabric of the 20th Century, the greatest cloth you’ve never heard of.
Ventile is made from the longest strands of the world’s cotton crop, woven in the tightest Oxford weave imaginable. And that’s it – apart from the DWR treatment every industrial fabric gets sprayed with (it makes sheets of fabric easier to pull apart from their mountainous piles in factory environments). Otherwise, essentially, Ventile is simply pure cotton.
But what it does is magic. Because when water touches this cotton, it instantly swells and expands, and blocks the ingress of more water. So you have a natural weatherproofing that really works. Layer this up – serious gear tends to use a double layer – and you have foul weather gear that is trusted globally for the serious tasks, by fire-fighters – because it does not catch a spark and burn, but merely smoulders – and even by surgeons – because the blood doesn’t soak in, which makes it hygienically re-useable. And it became essential wear on the Northern football terraces – where fans would stand for hours in often foul weather.
Back in the North Sea, Ventile meant that pilots wearing Ventile suits lasted 20 minutes on average – 10 times longer than the pre-Ventile days – which was a seriously good thing.
For pilgrims, the best part of Ventile is its incredible breathability. No synthetic Goretex comes close. Ventile cotton simply breathes, and never builds up that plastic clamminess that is so typical for even the most expensive Pro-Lite or eVent Exchange plastic fabrics. Nothing modern approaches Ventile’s breathability. Also it is quiet – lacking of the swoosh swish of nylon. As such, it is very popular with photographers and bird-watchers like Bill Oddie.
But it is expensive – only one mill has the copyright to produce it – and it is heavy – far weightier than the plastic bag jackets of modernity. So we recommend it for winter only, when you wear your ventile outers all day long, weather armour you can rely upon.
And if your ventile ever gets ripped – own barbed wire too close to the footpath, or the blackthorn hedge, you can simply sew it up and it will work as well as ever. No modern plastic jacket can boast anything similar.
Ventile is odd – a marmite material – for when it gets wet, it stiffens up like cardboard. So after a storm, you walk around like a child in homemade armour.
Nonetheless, it is good to know about Ventile – because single layer Ventile trousers are the only 3-season trousers worth wearing, in our opinion. Especially with a layer of fine wool underneath, which makes the perfect combination.
The trick with pilgrim clothing is to layer. The more layers you use, the more variability you will enjoy. So when you are slightly hot, you can pull off one layer and cool slightly.
Also, in Autumn, spring and winter, carry HSG – Hat Scarf Gloves – which are further temperature controls. When you wake up early, you’ll pull them on happily. But after the fires are going, a mile down the path, off they’ll happily come.
The other trick is to simply have less clothes. It is crucial to carry as few items as possible. A change of pants, socks and t-shirt is vital – when one set is dirty, remove them and wash them in the nearest stream or sink, and wear the next. Dry the washed ones on the outside of your pack, or wherever you can. Carrying a piece of string as a line for this purpose is wise.
But do not carry multiple pairs of trousers, or jumpers. One is ample for most British pilgrimage scenarios. In Medieval Britain, the value of a single shirt has been estimated to about £10,000. That is because every stage of its manufacture – the farmers’ man-hours, the shearer’s time, the carters carriage, the fullers work, the spinner’s, the weaver’s, the dyer’s, the tailor’s, and the merchant’s – with transport between them all – required a vast number of person-hours to produce. Today, a factory in Bangladesh bashes the same shirt out for pennies, and Primark sells it on for a few quid. But this is a very new tale, and in respect for the conditions of our ancestors, and to inherit a little of the freedom from ‘stuff overload’ humans once unknowingly enjoyed, on your pilgrimage carry as few clothes as you can. One pair of shorts – one pair of wool long-johns for cold nights – one warm outer jumper – one medium-grade top – one spare base top – one pair of spare pants and socks. It all adds up into enough of a weight, without the optional extras.
In the winter, when it can rain for days, and be cold to match, staying dry is crucial. At such times, we recommend ventile – heritage rainwear that allows some holistic damp through. If it really racks down, take shelter.
But for the rest of the time, a decent umbrella can be sufficient. The best in the world are made by the Germans. And they are really quite special.
Designed for golfers and trekkers, the Birdiepal brollies are amazingly light. Some are even designed to attache to backpack straps for a handsfree umbrella experience. Having a mobile roof can really help instead of relying on a jacket all the time, especially if you are trying to get things done and need dry hands.
Also, some of the Birdiepal brollies are intensely strong – which is perfect for hilltops, or as shown here, walking under waterfalls, sliding down zip-wires, or sitting under rock-falls. Insane.
We enjoy using good woollen clothes and brollies only, as a UK pilgrim weatherproofing solution – because the sky that soaks you is the same sky that dries you, and it always – always – stops raining.
It can be tempting to fully tog up in head-to-toe waterproofs. If that makes you feel more secure, perhaps go for it. But you will also feel more insulated from the world, and less connected to the land through which you walk. Also, you’ll sweat and overheat, which will effect your mood and outlook. So strike a balance, and aim for trust over fear. It is always the fear of getting wet and cold, other than the wet and cold itself, which is most disabling and limiting. Sometimes, a brolly, decent woollen clothes and a proper hat is all you need. Cultivate the fearlessness required to know this deeply, and be more free.
What are the best Pilgrim clothes available?
Aim for wool – and linen – and avoid cotton and polyester/nylon.
If you have to buy stuff, choose wisely, and try to buy the best possible clothing you can.
Here are a few of our favourite pilgrim-clothes makers:
A Finnish clothes-maker who use pure organic merino wool, Ruskovilla do not sell in the UK but have an inaccessible web-shop with beautifully sketchy English instructions. This is the Rolls Royce of wool base-layers, and if you want Robin Hood tight woollen leggings for walking the woodlands (who doesn’t?) this is where to turn. Ruskovilla are best known for baby-clothes, but what’s good for little toddler is also good for big pilgrim. The peak of modern quality, as well as wool Rusko offer silk and silk/wool blends. The website pictures are fantastical, but don’t be put off – this stuff really works, really well.
New Zealand heavy woollen outer-wear, Swanndri now manufactures in China and some people claim the quality has dropped accordingly. But they are still some of the best and most durable heavy woollen clothes you will ever find.
Overpriced and so much ‘sexier-than-thou’ it has gotten silly – with excessively aggressive branding – but despite all this, Icebreaker still produce great merino woollen clothes.
A Swedish woollen clothing maker, whose terry-towelled interiors are used by Ray Mears and the French military. Woolpower clothes are only 60-70% wool, so they are quite hard-wearing and can be a little sweatier then pure wool. Each item is made by one seamstress, whose name is in the label. For warmth and lightness, they are excellent. And their socks are astonishingly good. But equally amazingly expensive…
A British (Cornish) cold-water surf clothing maker, Finisterre are possibly the best of Britain’s pilgrim clothes-makers. They use Portuguese manufacturers, for greater ethical oversight of working conditions, and they impeccably source their fabrics.
Finisterre make the best pilgrim pants in the world – 80% merino wool, so you can wear them for longer – though of course, regular washing is here most crucial.
Finisterre also make really good recycled Japanese polyester waterproof jackets, and if you are looking for a lightweight modern cut of waterproof, this is where to turn.
A small British ethical high-grade manufacturer of the best possible woollen clothes, Bison Bushcraft are woodsy woollen outer-wear that is a Spring/Autumn/Winter favourite for many British pilgrims. Like a UK version of Swanndri, with fewer lines, their famous wool ‘Guide’ shirts come in 4 seasonal colours. Really excellent pilgrim kit that simply lasts, and works, and keeps on doing so.
The classic upper-class shooting brand, Barbour still produce some pilgrim-ready woollen gear. Avoid their wax jackets, which are more designed for standing still and shooting at small birds than moving continuously through the sacred landscape toward hopes of glory. But Barbour are such a big name, with such an international presence, that they can secure cheap manufacturing and as such offer surprisingly cheap clothing that is rather well made. Their pilgrim fingerless gloves – 7-gauge seamless ‘circular-knit’ Scottish lambswool – are famous winter-wear (Autumn and Spring too…)
There are many other manufacturers making great gear. Ultimately, the idea is to make do with what you have, or to slowly accumulate the high quality pilgrim clothes that really work for you. But the big problem is – once you get into this quality of clothing, it is incredibly hard to go back to H&M factory polyester. Because it doesn’t feel good, and it limits your ability to engage with the world. Who wants trousers that can’t go out in the rain, without making your legs cold and rubbed and smelly? Who wants t-shirts that sweat out and smell after an hour’s walk in the sun? Why settle for this? The pilgrim does not.
Remember, the best walking clothes are those you already have, or can borrow, or afford to buy.
You do not need any of this smart pilgrim clothing make pilgrimage. You simply need the will to step out and live among the weather. But if you can acquire some good threads, you will be glad. Check eBay for bargains, and borrow what you cannot buy…