I had never paid attention to seafarers’ clothes, particularly sea women’s attire, until I read Margaret Willson’s impressive biography of Captain Thurídur Einarsdóttir, Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain. In this biography, Mrs. Willson has brought to light the story of a strong and self-assured woman, unknown to the world, who braved the soaring waves and freezing Arctic waters to fish. Captain Thurídur was born in Iceland in 1777, and she fished in an open wooden rowboat with her father for the first time when she was 11 years old. To go to sea, young Thurídur borrowed her brother’s skin sea clothes. In the open rowboats with no shelter, these clothes were the seafarers’ only protection against the harsh Arctic weather conditions.
Without sea clothes, Icelandic sea people would have been exposed to icy snow, bone-numbing wind, and hypothermia that could kill them in no time.
A seafarer’s attire
A complete set of skin (leather) sea clothes in Captain Thurídur’s time included:
- Leather jacket: Seafarers wore jackets or anoraks made of either sheepskin or cowhide which was considered better coat material. To make the jackets more water resistant and supple, they rubbed fish or liver oil on them. A leather coat was so vital that seafarers were not normally allowed to go to sea without wearing one. Captain Thurídur wore a rust-colored long coat.
- Hat: On their head, seafarers wore a wool or leather hat with a brim. Captain Thurídur wore a stovepipe hat.
- Skin trousers for men: Men wore skin sea trousers over knit underwear, which they tied at the waist and ankles.
- Trousers for women: Only few women wore trousers at sea. To do so, women needed official permission. Captain Thurídur didn’t have permission, but she wore them anyway because she was an independent thinker and cared little about others’ opinion. First, she wore them at sea and later on land to work on her farm.
- Wool skirts for women: Traditionally, Icelandic sea women wore two long wool skirts at sea which were rather cumbersome in a boat. When they got wet, these skirts became heavy and didn’t dry well because no one had much heat at home. Sometimes, people would burn dry sheep’s dung and seaweed or driftwood from the shore, but heat from such materials would not dry a wool skirt. Also, these skirts were lethal if a boat capsized or a sea woman fell overboard. She didn’t stand a chance but drown in the freezing waters due to their heavy weight when wet.
- Wool sweaters and underwear: Under the leather jacket, seafarers wore a wool sweater (some women wore a shawl over their everyday dress). Men wore wool underpants, while women wore two knitted pairs of underwear under their skirts.
- Shoes and socks: Seafarers wore special treated leather shoes and two pairs of wool socks.
- Knitted gloves: These gloves were a highly valued piece of sea clothes, made with the wool from Icelandic sheep. This sheep breed is renowned for its purity and its double coat of wool: the tog (water resistant outer layer) and the thel (warm inner layer). The purpose of these knitted gloves was to protect from injuries, such as when pulling fishing lines, and from the cold. Hand warmth kept seafarers’ fingers flexible to grip the fishing lines and perform other tasks on a boat.
The power of sea clothes
After reading Mrs. Willson’s book about the harsh Icelandic life of Captain Thurídur in the 1800s, I realized that sea clothes were a necessity for fishermen, fisherwomen, and sailors venturing out at sea. These clothes were durable, waterproof, and warm. Their purpose was to protect against the extreme Arctic weather conditions such as thunderstorms, heavy rain, freezing waters, and icy cold winds.
Willson, M. (2016). Seawomen of Iceland : Survival on the Edge. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
Willson, M. (2013). Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain. Naperville: Sourcebooks.
Kwok, R. (2017). Iceland’s Forgotten Fisherwomen. SAPIENS. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/culture/icelandic-fisherwomen-forgotten/