Montana can be a rather chilly place, and a cowboy spends his life outside in the elements. For many years, wool underwear was an integral piece of my clothing from October through March.
Any time I mention wool underwear, folks respond with “doesn’t that itch?”, and they never quite believe that I could wear wool next to my skin. But I always bought light-weight, high-quality union suits that were as soft as any other knit.
I generally bought a new pair or two every year, and they were easily available from the Penny’s or Sears catalogues. The cost was about $29.95 when wages were $350 a month.
The light union suits laid nicely under the Wrangler jeans and plaid denim shirts that I wore year-round, and kept me comfortable in temperatures another 20-30o colder than the denim clothes alone. For riding a horse or tractor at temperatures below zero I kept a heavy wool union suit that I covered with a wool shirt and pants. That suit was a little courser wool, and it did itch if I would happen to work up a sweat.
The cowboy life is pretty active – slinging bales, roping calves, fixing fence – and the wool underwear did not impair movement. A fellow did have to be careful to peel off his jacket before he got too active, to prevent sweating.
Wool is an excellent insulator, and is one of the few materials that hold in the heat nearly as well when wet. It wicks the moisture away from the body so you never feel clammy like you can in cotton underwear. I had a dramatic demonstration of how well its wicking capacity one fall in the mountains.
When we went into a wilderness hunting camp, most trips were scheduled for 10 days. Fall in the mountains is usually chilly, with temperatures below freezing nearly every night. There are no bathroom facilities in a tent-camp in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, so no one takes a shower. The weather was seldom warm enough to encourage a spit bath.
At night, I generally peeled down to my wool union suit before crawling into my sleeping bag. My shirt and jeans accumulated a lot of dust and grime during the day, and I didn’t want to take all that filth into my down sleeping bag with me.
Getting in the bag was relatively painless – we usually had a fire going in a corner of the tent. By morning, however, the cold was settled right in. It took an intense concentration of will to climb out of a nice warm sleeping bag into the frosty air of the tent. A fellow had generally worked up a pretty good shiver by the time he was dressed.
Fortunately for us guides, the cook was the first one up. He had a fire going and a fresh pot of coffee before he called us. We had a chance to work off our chill in the cook-tent before going out to wrangle horses in the dark.
But back to the underwear…
Because it is usually pretty cold in the mountains at night, and always cold in the morning, a fellow is only able to strip down so far and still survive. I might change my outerwear once during the trip, but I usually kept that wool union suit on 24 hours a day for 10 days straight.
I don’t know what those hunting camps might smell like to a young lady fresh out of a shower, but I suspect they get pretty rank by the end of a 10-day hunt. We were a bunch of guys, however, and none of us smelled any better than the rest.
Maybe that particular smell receptor burns out for a while. Even after wallowing in his own unwashed stench for a week, a hunter can still pick out the musky smell of elk that are close by. I had never given my odor any thought until one particular day when I was cleaning up after returning home from a trip to the mountains.
I had peeled off my dirty clothes on the way to the shower, and left them lying on the washing machine. After enjoying the luxury of clean surroundings and a hot shower until the water heater was empty, I passed my pile of clothes as I left the bathroom.
The steamy air must have cleaned out my nostrils, because I was suddenly hit by the odor of sour sweat emanating from the pile of clothes on the washer.
For some reason I picked up the wool union suit and noticed that it did not carry the same stench as the cotton outerwear. Making a careful comparison, I noted that the cotton shirt had collected most of the smell. As the odor had originated from within the clothes, it was obvious that it had wicked through the wool and been absorbed by the cotton.
Likewise, body moisture wicks through wool and away from the body – a fact that I also appreciated about wool socks and gloves. Wool socks don’t become saturated with sweat and scald the foot like cotton socks do. And wool has the added advantage of maintaining its loft and insulation capacity even while still wet, rather than compressing like down or becoming clammy like cotton.
Insulated bib overalls became available around 1980. Those bibs provide more insulation than wool underwear, and have more capacity for adapting to temperature conditions. You can take off your coat, and your vest, then your bibs as your body temperature or the air temperature rise. And they have the added benefit of keeping your first layer of clothing clean and dry.
In later years I have come to rely on bibs almost exclusively. But they do add a layer of bulk that can be pretty limiting, especially ahorseback. For those fall rides I still favor the warmth and flexibility of my wool union suit underneath, leather chaps over top, and a pair of elkskin gloves with wool liners.