Breeches To Beaver Pelts: A Look At The 'Gear' Of The Pilgrims

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The next time you get cold fingers in Gore-Tex gloves while wearing a puffy jacket and synthetic base layer be thankful you weren’t at Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims. Equipment was quite rudimentary when the group of 102 travelers arrived in North America in 1620.

Yet they (well, about half of them) did survive the harsh conditions of their first winter. We spoke with Johanna Tower, a historical clothing and textile artisan at Plimoth Plantation, a museum about early American life in Plymouth, Mass., to learn more about the “gear” of the era.

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Sheath knife; all photos courtesy Plimoth Plantation

“There was no wonder that half of them died from exposure that first year,” Tower said. She added that historians base their estimates on what the Pilgrims wore in the New World on what was worn at the same time in England where all their goods were manufactured.

The Pilgrims did share one thing with modern campers — wool. Most of the textiles worn by the first settlers were made of this wonderfully versatile fabric. Check out some of the “gear” the Pilgrims used to survive their first winter at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

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Wool socks

From socks on up, Pilgrims wore wool all over their bodies. Their stockings covered feet and lower legs, reaching above the knee.

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Leather shoes (leather soles, too)

Leather was another major component of the Pilgrims’ wardrobe. They wore leather shoes with leather soles. If they needed more traction there were no Yak-Tracks – instead, they pounded nails through the sole to help grip the ground.

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“Base layer”

Natural fibers like hemp were also used for clothing, including the above “base layer” linen shirt that would be worn below a wool suit.

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Outerwear

Depending on the weather and occasion, Pilgrims usually wore one of three suits of outerwear. In the summer, their work clothes were made from canvas. In the winter, wool ruled and was the material of choice of both their Sunday suit and heavy frieze suit that was worn for day to day work to stay warm.

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Hat

The iconic Pilgrim hat is not really accurate, Tower said, but they did wear hats. Most were made of felt or wool, but those made from beaver pelts were prized for their waterproof properties and warmth.

Most Pilgrims carried a sheath knife on a belt that also had a small attached leather bag for personal items. This ditty bag was sort of the fanny pack of the era.

—Sean McCoy

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