Today I went for a bracing walk in Snowdonia, North Wales. It was a sunny – but still chilly – March day and before I left I automatically grabbed my fleece top. Now this fleece has no connection to a sheep – the word has long been appropriated by the outdoor clothing industry to denote an artificial-fibre garment. But I am staying in Betws-y-Coed and the town is packed with mountain and walking shops, stuffed full of such clothing with hardly a natural fibre to be seen, so it must be the right thing to wear, surely?
After about half an hour of climbing, having already unzipped my top, I took off the fleece to cool down. After a few minutes I decided I needed the top again, so I put it on over my cotton shirt. It was cold and clammy – as much evaporation as perspiration, and I was starting to wish that I had worn my woollen jumper instead.
I have recently re-read The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin – an account of a successful attempt to recreate the sixth-century voyage of the Irish monk St. Brendan from Ireland to America via the Faroes and Iceland in a boat, built as closely as possible to boats of the time. The building of the boat was half the adventure and involved finding craftsmen who still used some of the techniques that had passed down the generations. Although many people were sceptical that a boat made of ox hides, treated with sheep fat, and stitched together with leather thongs, could survive such a journey, it turned out that the flexibility of these materials helped the boat bend and adapt to the stormy conditions of the North Atlantic. Severin also praised his woollen clothing that helped keep him warm when the whole boat and all its contents got soaked through.
I have also heard a story of a Faroese rower who was part of an attempt to row across the Atlantic. The attempt was almost abandoned as the crew succumbed to cold and exhaustion, until the Faroese oarsman lent his spare woollen underwear to the other rowers and the expedition was saved!
What I am suggesting is not that man-made fibres cannot produce some brilliant technical clothing. I am not a dewy-eyed Luddite (I am writing this on an Apple Mac, not on parchment with a quill pen). But it seems to be perfectly plausible that millions of years of evolution have produced a fibre that is superior in many respects to the results of a few decades of research into petrochemical alternatives.
And surely those 80,000 Faroese sheep can’t be wrong, can they?