04 Jan

Learning to be warm: silk undershirts

Last winter I decided that I would take some active steps towards figuring out how to cope with winter. I grew up in the Caribbean, there are things that people take for granted that they have learned over a number of years that I never did. Or I resist.

For example, I hate being chilly in my own home, and I hate wearing layers. These are two things that put me at odds with most people in colder climes.

I hate being chilly in my home, but most people (at least here in Ohio), seem to keep their houses in the mid to high sixties. People get uncomfortable in my home, where it’s set so I can wear a light t-shirt, and then when I go to other homes I’m usually always leaving my jacket on.

“Can I take your jacket?”

“No, I’d rather leave it on?”


If I take it off I start experiencing the first levels of hypothermia in houses set in the mid sixties.

According to informal polls I’ve taken, that may be a sort of puritanical midwest thing, others say their social circles have their houses in the low 70s. But for me at least in non-urban Ohio, it seems mid or high 60s dominates, and there are still drafts that hit me that leave me shivering.

It stacks up and adds as the winter keeps going, until I began to actively loathe winter, the geographic location, and get very miserable about it all.

So the advice is to layer up.

Look, I grew up with a light shirt or no shirt at all around beaches. Constrictive clothing is annoying. Adding layers of it literally starts making me twitch.

Some people laugh like I’m making a joke, but I’m fairly straight forward about how just simply pissed off I get about it. By the end of the day when I’ve had a cotton undershirt, a long sleeved shirt, and a jacket on, my blood pressure is up. I’ve been shifting and twitching fabric around to sit nicely all day. It’s annoying.

And long sleeves. They bunch in the weirdest places and I keep noticing them all day long. If I’m not wearing a jacket and out in the cold, I don’t want something cover my entire arm when I’m inside a house.

My general impression of a house is that it’s a piece of technology designed to allow us to be comfortable.

It makes sense to be uncomfortable outside. I understand it. It’s outside.

But now I’m inside.

When I’m inside I’m not supposed to be uncomfortable.

See, that’s why we went through all the trouble of building the fucking structure in the first place. So that it’s NOT like the outside.

But when I’m inside a building and shivering, and I can’t think straight, I basically am left wondering what the entire fucking point of us even being inside the building is? If we’re going to be cold, let’s just sit outside and hold this social event.

This is where I’m coming from.

I usually try to shut up about it because I’m not going to go around to other people’s houses bugging them about how low the heat is (even though people give me a hard time about how high I keep the heat in my own house). It’s not polite. And how cold other people’s houses are; that’s none of my damn business. Could be because they’re saving money. Could be because they don’t mind layering. Could be tradition. Could just be they’re more able to handle the cold than me.

A couple of years ago I decided to do something about my dislike of layering. I purchased the warmest jacket an outfitters had. 800 fill, down, puffy. I walked in and asked ‘I want a jacket that will keep me warm when I walk out of my door wearing a light t-shirt’ and lo, this is what I acquired.

But it still leaves me unable to cope when I lose that jacket.

I have warmer long sleeved shirts. Those have been… somewhat tolerable.

Sweaters. I can’t.

Put a sweater on me, over something else, I’m likely to spend the next few hours shrugging constantly. I look like I have some sort of tourettes.

So I finally broke down and asked twitter: how do you handle this?

A lot of really interesting articles on base layers, how to layer, and so forth came back. Most of it required me to do things I didn’t want to do.

But a few people directed me towards a promising nugget of information: thin, light undershirts that trapped body-heat, wicked away moisture, and were really comfortable. And like most of the perfect solutions in life, they cost.

Three avenues existed: artificial fabrics, wool, or silk. Each of these would be light, and so not bunch up underneath the shirt of my choice (ah, choice). And they existed in short sleeve versions.

The idea of warmth, short sleeves, and no bunching had me interested.

With some gift cards in hand, and some left over money in an Amazon gift account, I’ve done some purchasing and am testing base layer shirts to see if I can get away with the dream of getting a short sleeved warm solution to drafty, cold houses. The first was a medium silk base layer, short sleeve, from Land’s End. At $50 not something I’d ever get myself on a whim, but I used the gift card.

A medium silk base layer arrived this week. It sat out in the 30 degree cold for a couple hours before coming in. I was impressed by the fact that it warmed up to my hand’s touch in a split second. Of course, silk feels luxurious to the touch, if… somewhat sheer. I’m worried about the durability of this thing.

But experiments get knowledge.

The medium is a bit small for me (I need to lose about 15 pounds for it to be comfortable fully) to wear by itself, but as a base layer works pretty well. I have a large neck and shoulders, so it’s a bit close to the neck, something I hate in shirts normally. But the silk is so soft that when it presses against my neck I don’t gag (which is what happens with 90% of crew neck material that pushes close to my neck). So it’s a bit tight, but still comfortable.

Inside the house, with a simple polo or normal t-shirt over it, I felt cool and comfortable. Not toasty warm, but always cool. Drafts didn’t hit me in the core, though I noticed them on my arms.

In 29 degree weather I pulled on a polo and my leather jacket and went out for a walk. Normally a polo and my leather jacket is too chilly for me, I opt for the down ski jacket.

But again, I felt cooled instead of frozen (my face and arms were able to let me know that there was a huge difference, as they were biting cold). With some gloves added to the mix and a fleece balaclava I was actually comfortable. Also, no sweatiness building up like in the heavy down full jacket with a shirt where I would overheat. The silk seemed to regulate.

It also didn’t need washed as soon. As a test (TMI?) I wore it three days straight, and after my morning shower found it passed the sniff test just from airing out over night. Day four did not pass that test. I normally wear out an undershirt in just one day. So 3X the usability despite being used for hiking around town. Good to know.

It let me feel quite unencumbered to just toss a leather jacket over a polo. And with a silk shirt under the polo, it didn’t feel like I was wearing anything but the polo. The polo slides right over the silk. No bunching. No shifting around.

I’ve ordered a large silk shirt, instead of medium, with another gift card, to see what a difference that makes (more room around the neck would be welcome). I’m tentatively impressed, but still testing. It’s early days, but I’m cautiously optimistic I’ve found an ally in my fight against shivering.

One thing I won’t be able to do is wear just the silk shirt. Can’t really pull that off. But man, it packs so light, if I ever do lose that 15 pounds, I can see a way toward packing light with a bunch of these shirts that could reduce travel stress.

What also intrigues me about these base layers (silk, wool, synthetics) is that they offer summer comfort as well! By wicking sweat away in the summer, they keep one dry and less stinky, as well as cool and comfortable. If this is true, then I may have a new tool in my step toward simplifying my wardrobe, being comfortable in a wide range of temperatures, and finding a basic uniform that I can save up for, buy similar versions of, and deploy (instead of the years of cobbled together random outfits I own). If these base layers allow me to overheat more gracefully, they will also allow me to wear a sport coat or leather jacket as a style item during variable weather.

The next test: I’ve ordered a couple of Merino Wool shirts using an Amazon gift balance from affiliate link clicks I’ve been keeping around with an eye toward a birthday treat. Wool is supposed to be even warmer than silk, and Icebreaker has something of a cult following. I’m going to test them.

I do have a wool driver’s cap (gray) that I’ve come to find surprisingly helpful in cold air, and yet doesn’t cause my scalp to sweat when I continued wearing it in the winter, so I’m, again, optimistic.