Inspired by Viking chain mail and worn by the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary and Greg LeMond, could a Norwegian string vest be the 'must-have' garment to keep you warm and dry on your bike during the winter months?
Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing. World War Two RAF crewmen. The Norwegian Special Forces and Polar explorers. All are familiar with operating in severe weather conditions, but even the most rugged of men and women cannot rely on flesh and blood alone. All the above have utilised top quality equipment to ensure the success of their respective missions or endeavours and in many cases, their very lives depended on their choice of kit.
The other binding characteristic of all the above is the mutual trust they bestowed on a humble string vest. But this is no ordinary string vest we are talking about. Put aside any thoughts of the Mens underwear department in Marks and Spencer - this is an altogether more formidable garment - the original, the Daddy of all the imitations that followed, a vest inspired (no less) by the chain mail worn by Vikings warriors, heralding from the icy plateaus of the Far North and made by the Norwegian company, Brynje.
The crew of an RAF Lancaster bomber photographed during a raid over Berlin in 1943.
The genesis of this garment is an intriguing story. Brynje (pronounced brun-ya) developed the woollen string vest in the early 1930's when an officer in the Norwegian Army, Captain Henrik Brun, frustrated by the poor performance of standard issue undergarments provided to his troops, approached the textile manufacturer, Jacob Jacobsen, with his theory that a yarn with holes could provide effective warmth and temperature regulation, yet reduce dampness caused by sweat generated during intense activity.
The early examples were made of hand-crocheted spun wool and quickly acquired an international notoriety to the extent that many WWII RAF pilots began wearing them to combat the cold of high altitude. Captain Brun's collaboration with the Jacobsen family continued after the war and the design was honed and perfected using cotton. The 'Brynje of Norway' brand was born.
The name brynje was taken directly from the lightweight, well ventilated chain mail favoured by Viking warriors, which the vests resembled - though whether this was pure coincidence or the inspiration of the design remains unclear. It also explains the company's logo and strapline: a Viking warrior holding his spear and shield, with the words 'The Original and Authentic Viking Wear'.
Brynje string vests were an instant success and such was their worldwide reputation that when John Hunt was planning the British led expedition to climb Everest in 1953, it was Brynje he approached to provide undergarments for his team in the Himalayas. Hunt was a British Army officer and, like Brun before him, placed great stock in the need for the correct equipment for the task in hand. He recognised the potential benefits of using the lightweight, thermal properties of the mesh system and when Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay conquered Everest on 29 May 1953 they did so wearing Brynje baselayers. (Admirers of Sir David Brailsford's application of marginal gains will appreciate the similarities here!)
Edmund Hillary (right) and Charles Evans photographed during the 1953 Everest expedition, wearing their Brynje string vests. © Royal Geographical Society
Brynje is still owned by the Jacobsen family who developed the mesh system over 70 years ago. The current owner, Jacob Melson, tells me that the company targeted the cycling market in the early 1980's. Up to then, cyclists were not using technical baselayers, but Brynje spotted the potential of the market and before too long their baselayers were being widely used in the professional peloton. Melson is understandably proud of some of the great names who have worn his company's products: Greg LeMond, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly and Pedro Delgado and, more recently, Thor Hushovd has become a fan. And who to say that his Norwegian compatriot, Edvald Boasson Hagen, isn't wearing Brynje baselayer beneath his Team Sky jersey!
Brynje may be a household name in Scandinavia, but is a relatively obscure brand in the UK, all the more surprising given its illustrious heritage and famous advocates. But thanks to Sussex based company, Nordic Life, the sole distributor of Brynje products in the UK, we too can enjoy the benefits of this innovative yarn. And in doing so, better appreciate the very matter of fact Norwegian saying 'Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær' - There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.
There might be a few foolish souls out there, but I think we'd all agree that the average road cyclist does not venture out in the same conditions you would have to contend with at Everest base camp. Even the highest Alpine cols cannot replicate the cold and wind velocity 10,000 feet above Germany in the cramped cockpit of a Lancaster bomber. But all things in life are relative, and cycling in deep winter can still test one's resolve and resilience. So if we too can benefit from an article of clothing favoured by war heroes, the first men to conquer Everest and Greg LeMond, then we would be rather foolhardy to pass the opportunity by!
An exhausted Greg LeMond photographed (wearing a baselayer) after the
1991 edition of Paris-Roubaix. The American was a fan of the Brynje brand.
Rhodri Lewis, owner of Nordic Life, is a man who is passionate about the brand and its abilities to keep you warm in cold, really cold, weather. Rhodri sent us a baselayer to road test way back in early October, just as some mild autumn weather swept the UK, but was happy for us to delay putting it through its paces: "You need to ride it in colder conditions!" he explained, further underlining his confidence in the product.
And he is a man who should know. Prior to setting up Nordic Life, Rhodri worked in the oil industry and when he was offered the opportunity to work in Norway he jumped at the chance. Passionate about outdoor activities, he enjoyed walking out of his front door and cycling, ski-ing, kayaking, hiking and mountaineering. In a country where inland temperatures can plummet to around -40°C in deep winter, the need for effective winter clothing is all important, especially if you are not going to let the occasional icicle and sub-zero temperature stop you reaching your favourite playground.
Rhodri stumbled upon an advert for Brynje in a Norwegian hunting magazine (think of elk plodding languidly through deep snow, tracked by burly men with rifles) and bought a baselayer almost on impulse: "I was won over almost immediately. I have been fortunate to be able to buy and test kit from most countries, so I know a good thing when I see it. The biggest revelation was the mesh's ability to control thermal regulation through venting or trapping heat. This also tied in with the superior moisture management."
The science behind Brynje's mesh system that so immediately impressed Rhodri Lewis is actually very straightforward. Air is a brilliant insulator and the mesh system holds air in the gaps between its thread, which is then trapped by the outer layer - the 'cap layer'. As your body heats up, the trapped air warms, keeping you insulated. Brynje claim that their synthetic Super Thermo range delivers an exceptional performance due to the highly thermal Meraklon polypropylene yarn called Isolfil, with which the garments are knitted. The beauty of this yarn is that it absorbs very little water, so venting allows one to regulate the temperature with the added benefit that you don't get as damp as you might with other textiles.
As Rhodri Lewis explains: 'The secret to the high performance is that it draws excess moisture away from the skin while maintaining a warm regulated cushion of air next to the body. With conventional solid knit underwear the perspiration cannot escape quickly enough through the fabric, so the fabric next to your skin becomes sodden and you quickly become cold.'
This is not the case with Brynje's mesh system as the air pockets in between the holes allow the body to 'breathe' more easily and naturally - which also explains why mesh systems work equally well in hot and cold climates. As Rhodri Lewis rightly points out, "Everyone hates that cold wet base layer stuck to the skin, and that virtually disappears when you use mesh. Firstly, you only have a small amount of material in contact with the skin, and secondly it's the 'cap layer' that holds the moisture as it leaves your skin as vapour and condenses on the cap layer, which is held away from the skin by the mesh."
So, you've listened carefully to the science, but how effective is the base layer when cycling in cold conditions.?
Road testing the long sleeve Super Thermo baselayer, the first thing to highlight is that the synthetic polypropylene yarn is very light and soft to the touch. It feels insubstantial in fact, which is not overly surprising given that it is full of holes! The cut of the baselayer is also good and although not cycling specific it is long in the back, thus ensuring your torso is not exposed, even when on the drops.
The Brynje Super Thermo long sleeve shirt
Riding in damp temperatures of around 4°C and wearing only a winter jersey - my 'cap layer' of choice - I quickly reached a comfortable core temperature as my tempo quickened. On prolonged gradients the effectiveness of the two garments combined was all apparent, requiring me to unzip and regulate my body temperature. The relief was immediate and I was quickly ready to zip back up and ride on. Most importantly - and this is where the mesh system really comes into its own - even though I was working up quite a heat I never felt damp under my jersey. Riding in cold conditions this really is a massive benefit.
From my own experience, the Brynje mesh system is definitely effective and it is no surprise that other manufacturers have brought out similar products, but they lack the pedigree and heritage afforded by this Norwegian brand. I have synthetic baselayers and a single merino one (reserved mainly for summer nowadays) and I would stick my neck out and say that the Brynje Super Thermo baselayer is on a par with the merino and superior to my other synthetic baselayers. The only downside of the Brynje Thermo range is that, being synthetic, it does not cope as well with odour as merino wool, even more so if you are going to use the same baselayer over a few days. But Brynje are alert to this small chink in the Super Thermo armour and Nordic Life also stock their 'Classic' range made with 80% merino wool, which copes a little better with prolonged use and body odours.
Lewis, however, is keen to point out that for higher tempo, more strenuous exercise the Super Thermo range is superior to the merino version. Wool, being a natural product, will hold moisture, so if your winter cycling regime is a little more sedate than the rest of the year, then perhaps the Classic merino-based tops are the ones for you.
The Super Micro C-Shirt and the Classic Wool Micro T-shirt
It's worth noting that Brynje utilise their mesh system throughout their range of clothing and there are several other items that the winter road cyclist can benefit from - the Super Thermo helmet hat will keep you head warm but will effectively wick away sweat though your helmet vents - useful on those long ascents into snow capped peaks! And at 30g, is easily packed away if the temperature rises. The array of Brynje products that are suitable for cyclists is impressive - vests, t-shirts, long sleeve baselayers with a full front wind cover. They even have a range made with a tighter mesh, which are more suitable for hotter weather. The baselayers are all unisex and the size range accommodates all shapes and sizes, from XXS to XXL and in a good variety of colours too!
I so wanted to get to the end of this article without mentioning Rab C. Nesbitt, but there you go, I failed. The string vest has fallen foul of fashion tastes in recent decades, and though it would be unfair to lump its demise on the shoulders of one Scottish comic creation, the association may have accelerated its removal from shops and chest of drawers across the country. It isn't, admittedly, the most alluring and sexy of garments, despite Madonna's valiant attempts to glamorise the string vest in the 1980's, but if you simply want to ensure you stay warm this winter and cycle in relative comfort, you would be well advised to follow the example of our Nordic cousins.
Or, to put in another way: 'Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær' as they say in Norway.
Brynje mesh baselayers and associated products are available exclusively in the UK through Nordic Life - it's an informative website, backed up by a friendly and knowledgeable customer service.
Prices start at £25.00 for a Super Thermo Vest. The long sleeve version, as road tested for this article, is priced at £39.00. Prices for the Super Micro mesh baselayers (for hotter conditions) and the merino based 'Classic' range start at £28.00
Building on their own experience of outdoor activities in cold weather conditions, Nordic Life are committed to providing quality, high performance clothing for all outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to Brynje, they also stock a selection of cycling gear by the USA/Italian manufacturer CAPO and if you are in the need of some winter gloves, then check out their range from the Swedish manufacturer HESTRA.
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