Once More Into the Breeches —
Bringing Knickers Back From the Brink
By Tamia Nelson
October 22, 2013
With the exception of the models hired by the hour to pose for catalog photos, few canoeists or kayakers care how they look. We care about what we wear, of course. In a hard chance, the right clothes can even make the difference between life and death, and enforcing this survival dress code is one of the many burdens borne by the brave folks who lead group outings, particularly when their charges are comparative novices. But most old hands don't give much thought to appearances.
Which is why many paddlers look as if they're off to a fancy‑dress ball with a thrift shop theme, at least during the more temperate seasons. Baggy shorts of the sort once worn by Chindits, cable‑knit sweaters that might well have seen service during the Cod Wars, even the odd kilt… Any and all of these can be seen somewhere on a wild river. Yet there's one traditional garment that's conspicuous by its absence:
That's the name they're known by in the UK, at any rate. In the States, you're more likely to see them labeled "knickers." But then, you're not likely to see them at all, at least in the backcountry. Before I set about righting this sartorial wrong, however, I'd better clear up some possible misunderstandings. "Knickers" is short for "knickerbockers," and the name is said to have originated with the baggy breeches worn by early Dutch settlers in the Hudson River valley, whose self‑important figures strode across the pages in illustrated editions of Washington Irving's pseudonymous satire A History of New York. (Irving had adopted the pen‑name "Diedrich Knickerbocker" when writing the book.) Nowadays, the Brits have appropriated the name to refer to women's panties, giving rise to such celebrated admonitions as "Don't get your knickers in a twist" — and very good advice that is, too, whatever your sex.
Notwithstanding the many hazards attendant on this confusion of tongues, American knickers and British breeches are much of a muchness, and I'll use the two labels interchangeably in the following paragraphs. By either name, they're simply short pants, ending just below the knee, traditionally made from hard‑wearing fabrics like moleskin or twill. For more than a century, they were the emblem of the sportsman — and, not infrequently, the sportswoman. (Sportswomen should not be confused with sporting ladies, of course. Language really is a minefield.) Skiers wore knickers. Climbers wore knickers. Cyclists wore knickers. Even golfers wore knickers, though they usually called them "plus fours."
This state of affairs continued well into the 20th century, and for a time knickers even achieved trophy status, becoming the badge of the "serious" mountaineer. That was still the case when I started climbing in the late 1960s, in fact. But fashions have changed. Today, knickers are more honored in the breach than the observance.
Why have knickers faded from the sporting scene? Good question, that. They have a lot going for them. Worn with knee socks, they're plenty warm, even in cold weather, and they permit a freedom of movement second only to shorts. More importantly, perhaps, they have no cuffs to drag in the mud or catch on downed limbs, tripping you up and sending you sprawling just as you sight the end of a half‑mile portage.
And that's not all. Do you want to cross a small, sluggish stream or negotiate a flooded trail? There's no need for seven‑league boots. If you're wearing breeches, you won't even have to stop to roll up your cuffs, nor will you be encumbered by two feet of sodden fabric when your rolled‑up cuffs roll down before you've waded halfway. You may want to strip off your socks first, however. (Or you could wear wellies.) But if that's too much trouble, you can just wring out your socks when you reach the other side. It's a lot easier than wringing out a pair of long pants.
Are bloodthirsty beasties a problem? That's a rhetorical question, of course. Anytime from ice‑out to freeze‑up it's likely that you'll have some unasked‑for six‑ or eight‑legged companions when you're exploring Canoe Country. And while shorts often seem to funnel biting flies and burrowing ticks right toward your tenderest bits, breeches can be snugged down tight below the knee, frustrating all but the most determined infiltrators.
Or maybe things are just too hot for you. Not in October, perhaps, but sultry days are common enough in the summer months, even north of the 49th parallel. And on such days — if the flies aren't mounting mass attacks and the local ticks have opted for a vegan lifestyle — you can open your knickers at the knees, loosen your belt (suspenders make this less fraught), and let a cooling breeze dry your sweaty crotch.
So much for the challenges of well‑groomed (if occasionally miry) trails in the more temperate seasons. But what about excursions through snow country and thick brush? These, too, can be taken in stride by the breeches‑wearer. Simply wrap gaiters over your knee socks. You'll be warmer in the snow, and you'll pick up fewer burrs in the bush. And if the weather is truly arctic? Just pull on your overboots and plod along. You're good down to −20 Fahrenheit, at least.
In short, knickers are ideal paddling wear, even on those occasions when you're paddling through white drifts on snowshoes. When you're well and truly breeched, neither snow nor rain nor heat can stay you from your appointed rounds. Still doubtful? OK. Let's catalog the many virtues of breeches for the record, then. They …
- Protect your thighs and knees from sun and scratches and biting flies, while …
- Allowing you complete freedom of movement.
- They don't have cuffs to drag in the mud or catch on stray branches when you step out cross‑country.
- And they're warm in cold weather, yet …
- Cool in the heat of the sun.
The bottom line? Knickers combine the best features of pants and shorts. There's only one problem: They're not easy to find, and when you do locate a suitable pair, you'll likely discover that they're priced for the deep pockets of the proprietor of a grouse moor, not the threadbare purse of a penurious paddler. But don't be discouraged. You won't have to pay Savile Row prices for short pants. It's not hard to …
Make a Pair of Bespoke Breeches for Yourself
And no, you won't have to apprentice with the Tailor of Gloucester first, either. All you need is a pair of sturdy pants, whose cut and material lend themselves to the demands of paddling. A case in point: Not long ago, Farwell asked my help in transforming a pair of Campmor 2/1 convertible trousers — the legs zip off to make shorts — into 2/1 knickers. The fabric is a windproof nylon, light but sturdy, and though the zip‑off feature is handy, the trousers' lower legs are needlessly voluminous, just about guaranteed to snag any branch lying alongside the trail.
They make better shorts than trousers, in other words. But Farwell thought they'd be better still as three‑season knickers, and I agreed. Moreover, the elastic loop‑and‑button closure at the ankle would be perfect to cinch the knickers below the knee. Here's a photo of the original trouser cuff to show you what I mean, though I'm afraid that one of the buttons is playing hide‑and‑seek on the right, concealed behind the hem:
The red rectangle marks the portion of each cuff that I salvaged. The photo at the head of this article shows the finished breeches, and here they are in the flesh, as it were:
The left‑hand photo displays the 2/1 knickers with one leg cinched and the other hanging loose — Farwell wanted the knickers cut generously, so as to allow the maximum freedom of movement — while the right‑hand photo gives a better view of the loop‑and‑button closure. The elastic loop snugs the knickers tight just below the knee but does little or nothing to restrict movement. Now here's an even closer close‑up:
Was this transformation hard to effect? Not at all. You don't need to start with 2/1 convertible pants, either. Any pair of long pants will do. And if the pants you're planning to alter have plain cuffs, don't despair. It's a straightforward process to make adjustable tabs using buttons and a buttonhole — or you can go the whole hog and stitch an elastic loop in place. Could you also use Velcro or other hook‑and‑loop fasteners? Yes. But I wouldn't. The stuff is a nightmare to sew. I'd stick to simple button closures. Sometimes old ways are best.
Want to see what the job entails? Then check this out:
First, put on the pants and decide how much to cut off. This is best done by an assistant who can mark the cut line on the fabric with tailor's chalk or a black laundry marker (a short slash or dot will do). Keep in mind that the knickers should be long enough so as not to restrict movement. If they tug at your knee when you lift your leg, they're too short. By the way, the old "plus fours" tag referred to the finished length of the garment: knee length plus four inches. That's a good starting point, though you can always check the fit — before cutting — by having the wearer put his or her foot on a high stool and seeing where the prospective hemline falls. Don't forget that you'll need to finish the cuffs, too, and this requires an additional length of fabric. A couple of inches should be a generous allowance.
Once you've marked and cut the pants, turn them inside out and hem the first leg. (I show a doubled hem in the sketch. The finished hem is about three‑quarters of an inch wide.) A single line of stitching will suffice if you use a lockstitch. You can now turn your attention to the other leg. (See inset sketches B and C.)
It's easiest to use material from the pants' original cuff to make the adjustable tabs. Cut off four short segments and run a line of stitches along all the raw edges. Then sew three sturdy buttons on two of the strips and make reinforced buttonholes in the other two. The end result? Two pairs of tabs, each pair having both buttons and buttonhole. Now just stitch one pair of tabs — button and buttonhole — to each leg, centered over the outseam. (See inset sketches D–F.) That's it. You're finished.
It wasn't hard, was it? I told you there was no need to get your knickers in a twist!
Fashion doesn't cut much ice in the backcountry, and the paddler's wardrobe reflects this. Function is all. Which is why the disappearance of knickers from outfitters' shelves is hard to fathom. But don't despair. If you've got an old pair of sturdy pants gathering dust on a shelf somewhere in the house, you, too, can soon be the proud possessor of a bespoke pair of breeches. And now you know how it's done.
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