What the well-dressed fieldworker is wearing this summer (ii)


The initial entry in this series focused on some commonly taken for granted pieces of clothing—underwear, hats, and scarves. In this entry we move on to discussion of outerwear (trousers/pants and shirts/blouses).

cotton nylon polyester wool merino

Which fabric?

Or – Should you stick with cotton?

Cotton and cotton blend apparel constitutes the majority of the world’s collective wardrobe. Cotton fabric is hard-wearing, breathable, and possesses a pleasing hand.

Cotton fabric absorbs several times its own weight in moisture and insists on holding onto it as long as possible afterwards. Ever notice how the cotton t-shirt that allows your skin to remain pleasantly dry during the first several minutes of yard work, a pick-up game, or Ashtanga session soon becomes so heavy and clingy that it actually prevents your skin from staying dry? If so, then you have observed the interplay of these two features at work.

If you do your fieldwork in a hot, arid environment it is possible to put these inherent qualities of wet cotton to good use. When the relative humidity is low, a sweaty cotton garment acts as something of a heat pump. Moisture circulates through the fabric pulling heat from the skin and dissipating it into the atmosphere through evaporative cooling.1

The heat pump effect is largely absent in high humidity environments due to their low rate of evaporation. Even so, cotton clothing is perfectly functional in hot and sticky conditions. It isn’t optimal, though. On a swampy day, the difference between a workable cotton ensemble and a nice polyester or nylon2 ensemble is the difference between a ballpoint pen and a fountain pen. The difference in price is not as pronounced, but the difference in performance really is. Polyesters and nylons absorb far less moisture than cotton, and hold onto that moisture less zealously than does cotton. That translates to more general comfort on a day to day basis due to less clammy, clingy clothing, and less weight carried on your back over the course of the day. (If you have access to a kitchen scale, try the following sometime. Weigh a clean and dry cotton t-shirt. Then thoroughly soak it and weigh it again.) Over the course of weeks and months it translates to less chafing and fewer fungal infections. High quality performance wear does indeed cost more, but over time you are going to end up paying one way or the other.

There are certain locales, and if you have spent time in one you know exactly what I am talking about, that see you coming out of a wall of hot, thick air and into air-conditioned commercial space with a sweat-drenched shirt on a daily basis. If that describes your regular research round, you might seriously consider the purchase of a 150 weight merino wool top. A lightweight merino garment is really not that much warmer than a lightweight cotton garment out in the street, and it far less chilly inside the room where the mildewy AC unit is blasting. (This has to do with the fact that cotton looses its ability to insulate when wet while wool does not.) And all other things being equal, the merino top will absorb less moisture than the cotton garment, breath every bit as well, and dry more quickly. Price can be restrictive, though, typically in the range of $80+ per. But if you keep your eyes open you will eventually turn one up at 40%–60% that price.

Where do I look for this type of kit, anyway?

Outdoor equipment manufacturers are obvious starting point on a search for the type of clothing I am describing here. In no particular order, and with no kickbacks coming my way, you might start with Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, ExOffico, Craghoppers, and RailRiders. I have had good experiences with apparel from all four brands, and their offerings run the gamut from hardcore outdoorsy to athletic to business casual. If you are concerned with looking too much like a fisherman while conducting interviews at your urban field site, look specifically for a company’s “travel” line.

Craghoppers trousers
Drying loops are a design feature worth looking for on pants and shirts that will be laundered on the go.

Next installment: Footwear (sandals, shoes, boots, socks, and insoles).


1. Wet cotton is a poor insulator. Keep this in mind if you plan to spend a hot day out in the desert that might stretch past sunset, when temperatures will begin a their sharp overnight drop.

2. I especially recommend garments manufactured of Ripstop Supplex, a nylon trademarked by DuPont. (The “Ripstop” part is important. Plain Supplex isn’t a bad fabric, but it is not as soft of the Ripstop variant and also much clingier when wet.) It has a hand and drape that begins approaching that of cotton. If you happen upon a garment made of Ripstop Supplex that you like the looks of, that fits you right, and that can fit into your budget, I recommend going through with the purchase. It’s a highly durable fabric, so with proper care the garment will be a usable part of your wardrobe for years.

Suggested reading

The following are nice points of departure for those interested in learning more about the issues of materials science and physiology underlying this discussion.

BackpackingLight.com. “Comfort and moisture transport in lightweight wool and synthetic base layers.” July 25, 2006. www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/comfort_moisture_transport_wool_synthetic_clothing.html.

Conover, Keith. “Clothing materials: a totally (or near-totally) subjective analysis of newer clothing materials for outdoor clothing [version 4.9],” December 2, 2013. http://conovers.org/ftp/Clothing-Materials.pdf.

Wilkerson, James A. “Ch. 3 – Don’t lose your cool: mechanisms of heat loss.” Ch. 3 [pp. 31–37] in Hypothermia, frostbite and other cold injuries: prevention, survival, rescue and treatment. 2nd ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2006. OCLC: 65064497.

Matthew Timothy Bradley

2 thoughts on “What the well-dressed fieldworker is wearing this summer (ii)

  1. “There are certain locales, and if you have spent time in one you know exactly what I am talking about, that see you coming out of a wall of hot, thick air and into air-conditioned commercial space with a sweat-drenched shirt on a daily basis.”

    I don’t recall you visiting us here in Taiwan?

    We got rid of almost all of our cotton clothes after the first year here.

  2. I don’t recall you visiting us here in Taiwan?

    Ha ha! Nope, but I can imagine. My own experience is from Puerto Rico, and the first time it occurred to me that that must be a fairly common experience was when someone who had done fieldwork on the Gulf Coast of Mexico described the same phenomenon to me.

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