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Knitwear and Gloves for Polar Explorers

To undertake polar expeditions, then as now, appropriate protection was needed against the elements, some of the most severe on earth.

Angharad Thomas Apr 28, 2020 - 11 min read

Knitwear and Gloves for Polar Explorers Primary Image

Members of the Terra Nova Expedition at the entrance of an ice cave near Cape Evans. The ship Terra Nova is anchored in the background. Photograph by Herbert Ponting (1870–1935). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; PD-1923.

Log in and download the companion project to this article, the Gloves for Polar Explorers. Find a link to the project PDF at the end of this article. —Editor

The North and South Poles, and the lands and oceans surrounding them, have long fascinated human beings. In the nineteenth century, expeditions from European countries and America explored both the Arctic and the Antarctic, for many reasons—economic, territorial, and scientific. Late in the nineteenth century, the Antarctic drew a series of expeditions with various objectives, among them: to reach the South Pole, to map the continent, and to cross it. Parties from countries, including Belgium, Great Britain, France, and Norway, traveled south and mapped different areas of the Antarctic. This period, known as the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, is associated with the names of Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton, and is usually taken to have ended in 1916, with the return of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

To undertake these expeditions, then as now, appropriate protection was needed against the elements, some of the most severe on earth. To study accounts of polar exploits is to become overwhelmed by the descriptions of the harshness of the physical conditions the expeditions encountered. Temperatures far below freezing are commonplace during polar winters, while wind, and in the Antarctic, high altitudes, exacerbate the cold. The almost constant daylight of the polar summer and the darkness of the polar winters add an extra dimension of physical challenge.

In traveling to these regions, expeditions equipped themselves as well as possible, using every kind of material aid. For the British Victorian-era Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin (1786–1847), who set out to discover the Northwest Passage in 1845, this meant taking a party of more than 100 men, as well as a grand piano, all of which were lost. In contrast, an earlier British explorer Samuel Hearne (1745–1792), had extensively explored and mapped in northern Canada walking more than 5,000 miles (8,047 km) with the native peoples, using their type of equipment and clothing.

Every aspect of the Heroic Age expeditions was influenced by Victorian attitudes about class and rank. Dressing in fur was seen as imitating the indigenous people, who were thought to have less knowledge and to be of lower status than the explorers (all things European being taken to be superior). These beliefs were reinforced by the desire to use the most up-to-date technology, including the clothing selected. However, the Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen (1872–1928), which was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, used fur clothing and dog sledges for transport, all as seen by Amundsen in his observations of the native peoples in the Arctic.

The British expeditions to the Antarctic were essentially naval, and the equipment and clothing was based around the standard naval uniform. Knitted items comprised underwear, sweaters, and smaller items, including hats, helmets, gloves and mittens, and socks. British firms such as Wolsey, who claimed their knitwear to be “unshrinkable,” the wool having been treated with special chemicals, supplied the knitted goods, the vast majority of which were machine knitted. A few handknitted items can be identified, but they are rare and notable, probably supplied by the wearer’s family. There is little information specifically about these items, but some can be gleaned from various sources: the few artifacts preserved in collections, documents such as kit lists and diaries, and photographic evidence.

Possibly the earliest fragment of knitted fabric used in a Polar expedition is a tiny scrap of a multicolored wool glove found in the remains of the disastrous Franklin expedition of 1845. It is one of the few articles that was not brought from Britain by the Franklin expedition. Preserved in the National Maritime Museum in London, it is thought to have been obtained from “the Danish settlements in Greenland,” which is consistent with the techniques used, which are known today in Scandinavia.

Other artifacts are in collections that include the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England (the home of Edward McKenzie’s mittens; see the project that follows), and the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand. However, clothing, in particular smaller items regarded as commonplace—gloves and socks—tend to be worn out and discarded or seen as being unimportant and not worthy of preservation. This makes the survival, return, and donation of McKenzie’s mittens all the more remarkable.

The kit lists for the Ernest Shackleton (1874–1922) expedition of 1907 to 1909 include underwear and outer clothing from the British firm of Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Co. Dr. Jaeger, a German scientist, was the father of the “sanitary system of dressing,” which called for the use of 100 percent wool garments.

Photography had reached a stage to be useful in recording the expeditions of the Heroic Age. The images by Herbert Ponting (1870–1935) of the Terra Nova Expedition led by Robert Scott (1868–1912) recorded all aspects of life onboard ship and on land, while the Australian Frank Hurley (1885–1962) did the same for Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 to 1916. The photographs picture what was being worn, sometimes including recognizably knitted garments.

In a photograph taken by Ponting, members of Shackleton’s expedition of 1910 to 1913 are wearing light-colored long johns and jackets. This image was subsequently supplied to the manufacturers of the items, Wolsey. However, the underwear was a mixture of cotton and wool, and Captain Scott reflected that perhaps it was not as effective as it might have been at keeping the men warm, because sweat froze in the Antarctic temperatures. Captain Scott also considered the two approaches, bringing in European clothing or using that of the indigenous peoples, when he reviewed his expeditions’ use of European clothing, noting in his diary that in fact the indigenous clothing might be better than “our civilised garb.” This problem was made worse for the British expeditions because they man-hauled their supplies on sledges, thus creating a lot of sweat.

The Polar explorers wore sweaters or jerseys that can be seen in the photographs that were taken on board ship or in the huts. Those taken inside the huts at celebration meals for birthdays or Christmas show many of the men in dark-colored plain sweaters. These would have been Navy standard issue as seen in a photograph taken of the crew of the Terra Nova in 1912, which shows casually posed groups of men wearing their everyday working gear, as different from dress uniform or Polar clothing. Visible knitwear includes a straight-necked, wide-ribbed, light-colored sweater about seven of the men are wearing and a rather smart double-breasted knitted jacket one is wearing. The photograph also shows socks and hats. The light-colored sweaters are most likely the ones Scott refers to in his diary entry of November 29, 1910: “Thanked Glendenning for his handsome gift, 130 grey jerseys. . . .” just before his ship Terra Nova sailed from New Zealand.

Few records note smaller items such as inner and outer gloves, hats, and socks, although they do appear incidentally in some images. Large fur over-mitts are to be seen in many of Herbert Ponting’s photographs of the Scott expedition of 1910 to 1913, and kit lists indicate that wool gloves would have been worn underneath these.

Robert S. Clark (1882–1950), a scientist on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, can be seen wearing a knitted helmet and a square bib or dickie over his greatcoat. The garter stitch can be seen clearly, indicating the bib was handknitted, and his face is framed with a double rib, also most likely handknitted. They appear to be separate articles.

Knitted items for contemporary personnel in polar regions are more likely to be fine-gauge jersey thermal under-layers than gloves and mittens. The most numerous items in the kit store for the United States Antarctic bases are standard-issue leather gloves, of which there are more than 8,000 pairs. The British Antarctic kit has several types of mitts and gloves in a variety of mostly synthetic materials, often mixed in the same items—for example, gloves in leather and fleece for fieldwork. The principle of layering still holds for extreme clothing, but changing materials make traveling and working in these regions slightly more comfortable.

Further Resources

There are many books about the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, some heavily illustrated with Ponting’s and Hurley’s photographs. Websites are a rich source of information, in particular those of the Scott Polar Research Institute ( and the Royal Geographical Society ( Both the United Kingdom and the United States have websites for their Antarctic bases ( and, respectively).

About the Author and Designer. Dr. Angharad Thomas is an independent designer, maker, and researcher. She is the volunteer textile archivist for the collection of the Knitting & Crochet Guild of the UK. Angharad has worked as a teacher, knitwear designer, and university lecturer, and traveled to Europe, the United States, Japan, Africa, and Australia. When not knitting or writing, she’s often hiking and trekking in Britain and the Pyrenees, sometimes with her grandchildren.

This article was originally published in Knitting Traditions, Spring 2015.

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