Wool and Fiction

September 10, 2008

Here’s this:




Aaaand I recently discovered something.  About wool.

It’s warm.

Before you laugh, a couple of weeks ago I added a cotton-stuffed quilt to the cotton waffle weave blanket on our bed to compensate for the cooler nights.  Der Mann and I use different combinations of cotton blankets through the summer months, and cotton blankets under a light down comforter that we can pull up or shuck as needed in winter.  Well, we were starting to get a little chilly again, so when I did the wash I put away the old bedding and took out one of two super-cheap wool blankets I bought at IKEA with the intention of sewing myself a coat.  They are periwinkle on one side and ice blue on the other, warp-faced and weft-faced alternately, brushed to a nice loft; but the ice blue looks really terrible with my skin, and the whole point was to make a reversible coat with a contrasting collar.

“Okay, so they’re blankets after all.  That way I don’t have to feel guilty about hoarding fabric for a coat I’m never going to make.”  I put an IKEA blanket on the bed and covered it with a cotton spread.

That night we roasted!  I pushed off the bedspread.  We still roasted!  Under one wool blanket, after getting cold under a cotton blanket and a quilt!

This amazed me even though I know all about the insulating properties of wool: retains heat even when wet, etc, etc.  Part of my amazement comes from the fact I have worn wool coats all my adult life.  The wind blows up the sleeves and down the collar and up the hem, so it takes careful layering and tucking to stay warm.  Maybe they key is that a wool blanket does a better job of keeping a person warm than a wool coat, just like a mitten does a better job of keeping your hand warm than a glove.

I kept thinking about this because it tied in to something that bothers me in fiction.  I’ve always found it embarrassingly naive on the part of the author when characters charge off into the Northern European landscape with nothing but a small pack and either a wool cloak or blanket to sleep under.  Any novelist using her head ought to know that her characters could die of hypothermia that way, or at the very least be so miserably uncomfortable and sleep-deprived that it would make it’s way into the descriptions or dialogue.  Tolkien made the concession of elf cloaks.

I felt sorriest for the characters in the book The King’s Peace, by Jo Walton, an unromantic portrayal of Arthurian Britain.  The book straddles the line between historical and fantasy fiction, but Walton’s style is so concrete and reportive–nary a whiff of anachronism–that I expected better.  Her main character is a dignified female warrior in Arturius’ (Artos’?) army, and of course nobody in is having much fun (what with it being the last stand of a civilization against the dark ages and all), but their kits and sleeping arrangements got mentioned a lot, and nothing about the fact that everyone was freezing all the time.

The euphemism the soldiers used for pairing up was “sharing blankets,” which they did.  I supposed the extra body heat would help a little.  Also getting out of the wind and piling dried vegetation to get you off the ground, but you can’t always do that on campaign.  As I read I pictured the misery of cold added to the misery of everything else.  I’ve been to places like the ones where the characters were bedding down.  I’ve tried sleeping in summer-weight sleeping bag there.

But after my recent wool blanket experience, I think maybe it wasn’t all that bad.  My sleeping bag had a synthetic filling, whereas a good thick wool blanket or cloak you could roll up in might actually keep you pretty warm if you slept in your clothes.  Maybe all those characters aren’t being passed off as larger than life, with either a furnace-like metabolism or a heroic imperviousness to cold.  Does this mean I have to stop feeling sorry for people in history too?  The Roman foot-soldiers with paltry bedrolls strapped to their 60-80 lb packs?  The Highlanders whose entire outfits consisted of wool yardage?  It opens whole vistas.*

I didn’t like The King’s Peace enough to finish the trilogy.  The plot meandered like the politics.  Walton’s reserved style and fondness for logistics meant that while she gave a lot of information about a lot of different people, I never really got a feel for what it was like for them inside their skins.  I read her later books and found them much better.  Her super-consistent imagination lends itself well to audacious projects.  All through Tooth and Claw I kept thinking, “My gosh she’s pulling this off.  HOW is she doing this?  WHY is she doing this?”  Tooth and Claw is a pitch-perfect regency novel set in a society of dragons.

Walton also writes alternate history novels that take place in the fifties during the protracted reign of the Third Reich, after the English have made peace with Hitler in order to prevent the invasion.  Farthing and Ha’penny are both riffs on the detective novel–a genre that bores me–but they are so well conceived, and come at such interesting moral and social issues from such interesting angles, I eat them up.  Especially Ha’penny: a weakness for theater history is a hangover from my teens.

I’m thinking I should go back to her Arthurian trilogy and see if I like it now.  Fall makes me questy, and I’ve been having trouble finding good fiction.  I’m not in the mood for classics.  I’ve exhausted the work of all the modern authors I seek out, so it’s a matter waiting for them to write more, or finding new ones.  My best method of finding new fantasy authors used to be the informational sections of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies (great for lovers of literary interstitial fiction), but my current library system doesn’t buy them.

Read anything character-driven, literate, and emotionally complex lately?  With magic?

I know, I know.


*  Fortunately I can still pity the Japanese who, through a thousand years of sophisticated culture, living in essentially unheated houses, never imported wool or raised livestock for fiber!  Not everyone could afford silk.  Whenever I watch anime or a film set in feudal Japan, I imagine myself in a permanent crouch over the hibachi, pulling on a fifth or sixth cotton kimono.


6 Responses to “Wool and Fiction”

  1. I learned from spinning that you can spin wool basically two ways: woolen or worsted. Woolen spinning creates a high-loft yarn containing lots of trapped air, and is subsequently light and very warm. Worsted spinning compresses the wool, squeezing out air, and the resulting yarn is heavier, but cooler. A project I hope to do one day is knit two hats in the same pattern and wool, but using the two different spinning techniques, just to find out what the difference in warmth and feel would be. One day.

    We received a silk blanket (it’s like a heavy comforter) as a wedding gift. It’s very warm, but it feels like sleeping under many layers of blankets, all made of iron; it’s so uncomfortable that at times I’m not sure if I’m imagining it makes it difficult to breathe. It’s scary to imagine the number of tiny cocoons that must have been unravelled to fill it.

  2. Suzan Says:

    I adore wool and not too long ago wove and fulled enough yardage to make a Hudson Bay type coat. Totally hippy ish but I’m very proud of it (and it’s so cozy). The fulling is quite important in making wool windproof.

    Have you read “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon yet? Her stuff is fun, she’s smart, there’s some magic. Great winter read.

  3. Jane Says:

    Mary Stewart’s series always get my vote — Hollow Hills, Crystal Cave, etc.

    I agree with Suzan about the Outlander series. Good, loooong reads.

    In my hippie days I wore a woolen, hooded cloak that I had made from a blanket — with layers underneath, like silk undershirt, flannel shirt, and a sweater, the cloak was warmer than most of my coats except for my major down filled parka. This, living at high altitude and northern latitude. Loved that thing. Traded it for a book on falconry. Another great adventure. 🙂

    How’s the back? As fate would have it, I’ve been in bed all week with mine. So have whiled away the hours reading, and installing software on my new laptop (other decided it was time to take a powder) and beginning the tedious process of transferring files. Am happy for the new one, though, so will not complain.

    Hope you are mobile, free from pain, and are weaving away.

    Like an Egyptian. . .

  4. trapunto Says:

    A blanket made of iron for a wedding gift sounds very dark fairy-tale-y. Gave me shivers.

    Thanks Susan! Fantasy Scotland sounds like just the place for me right now!

    I love to think of you in a cloak, Jane. I made a long green wool cape for myself in my teens, but I gave it to my younger brother when he was in a heavy Lord of the Rings phase in high school. It wasn’t very warm because of the drafty arm slits and lack of overlap–but now it sort of feels like I gave away my youth. He wore it to the opening of The Two Towers with his homemade chain mail as part of an Aragorn costume, so I guess it had a good send-off.

  5. Have you read “Across the Nightingale Floor”, by Lian Hearn? It’s the first of a trilogy. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I don’t remember how literate it is; I just remember enjoying the trilogy.

  6. trapunto Says:

    Yes, I loved it! Another one of the reasons I think I would have been very cold in pre 20th century Japan.

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