The April 6th Game of Thrones episode, “Two Swords,” eased the HBO series out of the gate and into its fourth season. With this Sunday’s episode, “The Lion and the Rose,” and King Joffrey’s Purple Wedding, things picked up speed considerably.
One of GOT’s hallmarks is the way in which its physical and human geography combine real world analogs with fantastical elements. The setting known as The Wall exemplifies this trait. This architectural feature sees Hadrian’s Wall relocated to a boreal forest, increased in height to 700 feet and constructed of massive blocks of ice rather than of stone and turf.
The Wall is garrisoned by a military order known as the Night’s Watch whose members vow to live and die at their posts. Those assigned to the Rangers, the arm responsible for patrolling north of The Wall, suffer a high rate of mortality. Persistent conflict with the region’s native inhabitants, known pejoratively as “Wildlings,” regularly claims the lives of patrolling Rangers. The climate also takes a significant toll. As one of the leaders of the garrison informs a visitor during first season of the program:
Half the boys you’ve seen training will die north of The Wall. Might be a Wildling’s axe that gets ’em. Might be a sickness. Might just be the cold.
The Wildlings’ superior clothing technology plays a crucial role in their ability to permanently inhabit the harsh region north of The Wall. They dress in fur- and skin-based garments, which GOT costume designer Michelle Clapton styled after traditional Inuit clothing. Meanwhile, the Rangers dress in textile-based apparel modeled on Late Middle Age military attire. How do we know the former outperforms the latter?
In 2006 Professor George Havenith of Loughborough University’s Environmental Ergonomics Research Centre conducted comparison testing of replicas of the clothing used during Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911–12 race to the South Pole. Havenith compared the insulating properties of the ensembles through thermal manikin testing1. He found that Scott’s clothing, which relied primarily upon cotton and wool to provide insulation, provided substantively less resistance to convective cooling (i.e., it was less windproof) and had a poorer insulation-to-mass ratio than did Amundsen’s fur-based clothing2.
A finding of particular note was that use of Scott’s clothing ensemble was associated with greater energy cost than Amundsen’s. The poorer insulation-to-mass ratio of Scott’s clothing meant that he and his companions used more energy carrying the clothes on their backs than did the members of Amundsen’s team. Scott’s textile garments were also stiffer and bulkier than the supple skin and fur garments worn by Amundsen’s team. In other words, not only did movement across the landscape in Scott’s clothing ensemble require more energy, movement within the ensemble itself did as well.
Inuit-style parkas like those worn by the Wildlings trap radiant heat both between and inside the hollow caribou hairs worn against the body. In deep cold, an additional parka is worn fur-side out. The space between the two parkas functions to capture an even greater percentage of the torso’s and the head’s radiant heat3. The Night’s Watch relies upon the heavier, less flexible quilted textile blouse known as a gambeson to trap heat radiating from the trunk4. The Night’s Watch clothing ensemble provides no means whatsoever of trapping body heat radiating towards the crown. Given the amount of heat exiting the body at the head, this constitutes a major design flaw.
It is absolutely essential to be mindful of the fact that adequate Subarctic and Arctic clothing must do more than prevent radiant heat loss. It must also provide a means of perspiration management. Failure to do so results in evaporation-related cooling5. It does so in two ways. Firstly, moisture in contact with the skin transfers heat directly from the body. Secondly, clothing loses a percentage of its insulating value when wetted. As external temperature and the wearer’s activity level decrease, wet garments begin to first frost and eventually to freeze solid.
Inuit clothing incorporates manual ventilation to prevent perspiration build-up. Parka hoods may be first uncinched and then removed to allow humidity to escape from the top of the garment as well as to allow cold air to enter, thus lessening heat stress. The same humidity-out-cold-air-in option is available at the bottom hem of the parka by untucking it and loosening the belt (which prevents wind ingress when tightened). If moisture does begin to condense on the inside of the parka, the wearer has the option of removing it, hanging it briefly so that the condensation freezes, and then beating it as one would a rug. This process results in the removal of a great deal of the (solidified) condensation.
In comparison, the Night’s Watch clothing system seems almost to have been engineered to accumulate condensation. Not only does the ensemble provide few options for ventilation, but its overall weight, bulkiness and stiffness also predispose it to cause heat stress and exacerbate sweating. Finally, the doff/hang/beat process is not effective with a gambeson because moisture is absorbed into the cloth from which it is made. The moisture freezes the blouse through and through rather than adhering to the inside surface in the form of small particles of ice as with Inuit parkas.
While GOT takes place within the frame of the fantasy genre, those well versed in cross-cultural ethnology recognize real world analogs to many of the show’s institutions and practices. And when it comes to adapting to extreme climates and environments, the consequences of failing to learn from neighboring culture are clear.
For example, Norse communities began appearing along the fjords of southern Greenland in the late 10th century. These communities thrived during the initial three centuries of their existence, after which they began a gradual decline. Norse settlements on the island had been completely abandoned by the late 16th century amidst the onset of the climactic period now known as the Little Ice Age (yes, winter was coming). Archaeological investigation has shown that the Greenland Norse displayed a dogged cultural conservatism in matters of dress. In spite of the increasing inadequacy of their Scandinavian-derived clothing for the ever harsher climate of the island, there is no evidence that they ever adopted the more effective skin clothing of the Inuit with whom they had been in contact since the 12th century.
Those Norse residents who remained in Greenland as of the mid- to late 16th century are generally believed to have relocated to welcoming communities in Iceland and Norway. The men who have taken the black, however, have pledged to stand their post come what may. Here’s hoping that someone, say perhaps the personal steward to the former Lord Commander, might be of a mind to try and get them into some proper kit for the job at hand.
1. The results of the testing are available in Havenith’s paper “Benchmarking Functionality of Historical Cold Weather Clothing: Robert F. Scott, Roald Amundsen, George Mallory,” Proceedings of the 3rd Textile Bioengineering and Informatics Symposium (2010): 1204–12, url:dspace.lboro.ac.uk/2134/9716.
2. For more on convective, radiant, and evaporative cooling, see chapter 3 of Gordon G. Giesbrecht and James A. Wilkerson’s Gordon G. Giesbrecht and James A. Wilkerson, Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Survival, Rescue and Treatment, 2nd ed. (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2006).
3. For a brief overview of Inuit clothing, see chapter 7 of Jonathan C. H. King’s First Peoples, First Contacts: Native Peoples of North America (London: British Museum Press, 1999). For a more comprehensive discussion, see Betty Kobayashi Issenman’s Sinews of Survival: The Living Legacy of Inuit Clothing (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).
4. Chapter 7 of Brashford Dean’s Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare (New Haven: Yale University Press; London: Humphrey Milford, 1920) is a discussion of soft or “yielding” armor such as the gambeson.
5. See George Havenith, “Laboratory Assessment of Cold Weather Clothing,” in Textiles for Cold Weather Apparel, ed. John Trevor Williams, Woodhead Publishing in Textiles 93 (Oxford; [Manchester, U.K.]; Boca Raton: Woodhead Pub. ; Textile Institute ; CRC Press, 2009), §10.2.