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Killing it with Cotton
Addiction to cotton T-shirts has its benefits
Past the iron gate making our way down the narrow corridor to the hallowed hall, I couldn’t help but think about all the talent that walked this same route. Riding the hump of the inchworm, we were able to stop and admire all the fittings and fixtures along the route every few seconds as the queue slowly indexed forward. Wow! Look at that cool photograph! I love that sconce! How much of this wood siding is original?
We were just about to the portal that would lead us into the much anticipated and highly revered Preservation Hall to hopefully find great seats when out popped one of the night’s featured jazz musicians perhaps making a quick dodge to the head. Empty handed, I couldn’t tell what he played, but knew he must’ve been in the band for no one else would be swimming upstream in the opposite direction just then. He was dressed for the part too. After a quick exchange of “excuse me’s” and a parlance of “pardon me’s” as each of us did our two-steps, he stopped dead in his tracks, glanced down at my garb, and came back with a grin.
“That is a great t-shirt, man.”
Dude. I replied with a quick and appreciative “thank you.” No higher compliment could have been paid to me just then. I had had similar thoughts when I first stumbled across the shirt in a second hand store in Berkeley, my hometown in Northern California. Raggedy Ann had never been my favorite, in fact she was pretty strange. I much preferred superhero action figures in my childhood, especially my raggedy Superman. But take a less disturbing looking doll, put her on a skateboard, catch her in mid-flight doing a trick, and imprint it all on a light blue t-shirt, and you have an instant favorite, at least in my closet.
My wife calls it a sickness. I call it a hobby or perhaps even a vice. “Another t-shirt?!? Really?” she often scoffs. Better than being addicted to drugs or alcohol I reply. You see, I can pander to my insatiable cravings with no further harm than spending a few extra bucks at the local thrift shop. Taking a narrow view, perhaps the only harm done is to further shrink the shortage of space in our tiny bedroom closet. A wider view leads one down the path of the evils of excess consumerism, something I feel passionate about, but I won’t go there today, though it may eventually curb my habit.
A great t-shirt can be a rare find, including the ones that are re-discovered after they’ve been long pushed aside by newcomers. Even more valuable are the ones that elicit positive reactions, like from a top-notch jazz trumpeter from New Orleans. Somehow, I inherently value his input more.
T-shirts are the best. 100 percent cotton is the undisputed King of that realm. I know all about the virtues of merino wool shirts for traveling, and will discuss those in another post, but a lightweight cotton short sleeve T-shirt has a reserved spot in my ultralight bag anywhere I go. Though not ideal in wet humid climates, as it takes cotton much longer to dry, I’ve found that I’ll often choose to wear a damp cotton t-shirt, not yet quite finished drying, over a fully dry synthetic or wool option. On some trips, I end up wearing a cotton T almost the entire time even though I have much nicer looking collared button down options or a high tech synthetic stuffed in my sack. “Sacrifice nothing in the name of comfort” is often my motto.
We hear it often in outdoor adventure circles. “Cotton Kills.” Yes, absolutely. This needs to be said. It can be fatal if you’ve make a poor choice by wearing cotton to break trail in the backcountry mid-blizzard miles from the nearest pavement without anything to change dry and warm to change into. In fact, even in moderate or warm conditions, wearing wet cotton can lead you into deep deep trouble. Hypothermia is a real threat that you should always be mindful of. Let that be my disclaimer to you. Stop and think before you bring or wear it! It can suck all the warmth out of you.
But when you’re out hitting the city streets of a world city where you can deftly duck into the corner Starbucks at the first hint of rain to catch up on your emails and edit a few photos, there’s no better choice in my mind than cotton. It’s super comfortable, breathes better than anything, and doesn’t retain odors through washing. I’ve often found it to be my “go-to” fabric regardless of climate - humid, dry, baking, frigid, or otherwise.
Again, for added emphasis, use your noggin when using cotton. It’s vital to also pack something that keeps you warm when wet. Getting completely soaked while wearing cotton is no fun and can lead to a scary case of hypothermia in certain conditions. Heavy rain with little shelter? Skip the cotton. Sweating a lot doing something active with a period of inactivity coming up? Same thing. There’s no better alternative than merino wool or some other synthetics that stay warm when wet under those kinds of circumstances. But even when I choose to wear wool or another synthetic for the day, what do I change back into the moment it’s safe to do so back at the trailhead or homebase? Cotton! Ahhhhhhhhh…
But doesn’t a variety of fabrics stuffed away in your pack increase weight and bulk? Yes, that is often the challenge. One failed tactic of the ultralight strategy I’ve employed has been to start a trip without any t-shirts in my pack in an effort to keep the initial tare weight down. The tactic is to start with less than what you need and buy items along the way to make things whole or to fill in the gaps as other things are consumed.
The problem with this approach, when it comes to T-shirts, is that (1) quality overseas can be quite low, (2) you can’t trust tags that say 100% cotton - they’re often not, and I find the cotton-poly blends and 100% polyester to be stuffy in humid climates and apt to retain odors, (3) good luck on fit and sizing when it comes to a big guy like me, and (4) they’re often way overpriced for what you’re actually getting for your money. Also, what are the chances that you’ll find one that rivals one of your faves from your own closet?
You’re much better off just raiding from your own stash back home for the one or two T’s that you want to take along. That way, you won’t have to carve out valuable time from your travel day looking for a good t-shirt to buy. That’s happened to me all too many times and can be an annoying distraction. Further, it’s much easier to control total baggage weight back at home. Why not break out that scale, weigh your wardrobe (yes, I actually do that - more another time), and pick out your favorite lightest weight option?
For long-term travel, if you’re looking for some variety in your wardrobe (subject of a future post too), you can often give away the one you bring with you from home with one you stumble across that you just can’t part with.
Despite all the above, I do always like to bring along one button down shirt in the rare event that I’ll actually do need to dress up a little for a nicer establishment. But since I detest white tablecloths and strongly repel anything pretentious and stuffy, it’s more often than not that this nicer shirt just takes up valuable space in my pack and gets carried along for the ride without any significant use.
I don’t need a fancy suit, pressed shirt, pleated slacks, a Rolex watch, and a big fat gold ring to make myself feel like a hundred bucks. What a stupid expression anyway. In my experience, pulling a $10 bill out of my wallet invokes way better feelings than a Benjamin Franklin. No, the high carat moments for me are the seconds spent with a struggling artist in a dusty dimly lit hallway where I can reply with a simple hearty “thank you” to a simple hearty compliment for my ragtag t-shirt pulled out of a dusty dimly lit closet. Such are the truly golden fleeting moments that I’ll never forget. T-shirts rule! But only if they’re 100% cotton.