The case for taking linen to the tropics

In the run up to taking my honeymoon in Mexico and Belize I specifically looked into taking linen clothing as an alternative to cotton and synthetic materials.

I tend to find that synthetics take far less abuse before they start to smell and I didn’t want to a) carry much baggage, b) pay our expensive hotels to launder our clothes, c) hand wash all the time. Whereas I did want to look vaguely respectable in some of our honeymoon snaps. I find cotton tends to look scruffy quite quickly in daily wear and tear whereas linen often improves its look with a few crinkles. That was my starting point for considering linen but after a short Google search I found this article espousing the benefits of linen for traveling. It’s a long article so I won’t summarise the whole thing, but basically it sings linen’s praises for durability and highlights its properties when dealing with water and bacteria or mould. I imagine that most travelers have delved into that rarely-used hidden side pocket on their backpack and discovered one of Satan’s Olfactory Dementors, AKA a well-used and thus offensively aromatic pair of underwear stuffed in during a hasty packing session, and then forgotten. That’s usually the result of lovely damp bacteria thriving and ponging up the joint.

Whilst linen underwear or socks would be insane (I think!?), the same principle would apply to any of your normal garments. Now, apparently linen has some magic built-in anti-bacterial powers as well as a certain level of water divergent properties. I’ve witnessed the latter in light rain showers on my linen jacket – you can see water beading and rolling off as if you were wearing Gore-Tex. As we were planning to visit the tropics during the changeover to the rainy season I thought I’d give linen a proper try out myself.

My ugly mug and my travel shirts

My ugly mug and my travel shirts

The trousers verdict:

I brought a pair of cotton-polyester mix trousers, a linen-cotton mix pair, and a pure linen pair. Only the latter came anywhere close to meeting my expectations. The 100% linen trousers were a revelation. I didn’t tend to notice much in the way of water repellent abilities but they dried far faster than any of the other pairs, were dramatically lighter, blew in the wind in a pleasing way, and appeared to dissuade mosquitoes from biting through the material. The other two pairs were far too warm, and took much longer to dry. Plus the pure linen did actually look quite good with a few creases.

The shirt verdict:

This gets a little complicated. I brought a pure cotton shirt (blue, checks), a synthetic Ex-Officio shirt (bright blue), and two linen shirts – one with a tight weave (light grey) and one with a much lighter and blowy weave (white). I will deal with the Ex-Officio shirt at the end because it isn’t fair to compare bespoke travel garments to off-the-peg British high-street fashion.

The cotton shirt got wetter quicker and ‘felt’ dirty quicker with the gradual ingress of sun cream and sea salt. The blowy linen shirt was perfect with the added bonus that even though it was a light weave it still seemed to completely block the midday sun from my shoulders. Shame it didn’t have a collar. By contrast the tight-weave linen shirt felt a bit too warm and restrictive in these levels of humidity. This one was the most water repellent but that’s kinda pointless if you end up sweating more from the inside.

The cotton shirt seemed to actually attract buzzy monsters to me and frequently I felt them biting through the fabric to get at my sweet, sweet, arterial nectar. The two linen shirts seemed to block them a little bit as I was able to crush the bastards before they punctured the fabric. You see, they seemed to sit around ineffectually jabbing for longer – I had more time to seek and destroy.

As far as looks are concerned they all got a bit scuzzy regardless of the fabric, but none of them began to smell much at all. The worst thing was the sun cream’s impact on my perception of the shirts. The blowy linen shirt looked and felt better for longer because it was designed to be less rigid, whereas the others started to get more than a little cardboardy so that I tended to actually wear them less often. Leading me to think that I should just invest in a few similarly built tops in future.

The Ex-Officio shirt was pretty amazing really. It did everything that you would expect from travel clothing, with blocking insects being the most important, on top of looking less awful than most of the Craghopper type of safari/hiking stuff. I don’t want a wardrobe of Ex-Officio stuff, partly because it’s really expensive as well, but this one garment was excellent for the activities we frequently engaged in (strolling around the jungle, kayaking, caving).

The jacket verdict:

I packed a linen jacket as well, partly for the flights and partly in case there were any colder evenings out. I’m really not quite sure what I was thinking for the evenings as it doesn’t ever get very cold during a tropical summer evening, but it was still the lightest piece of layering that I could have feasibly and sensibly packed. And it did feel pretty comfortable to sleep in and it warded off the turbo air-con on each flight.

We did submit our clothes to be thoroughly laundered and restored to normal, after a couple of hand washes of some items. Again it was the cotton that let me down most often by reverting to the Kingdom of Pong.

Truly I don’t think I will be able to travel with lots of cotton ever again. Particularly in hot climates. Linen is the way forward because it copes notably better with these environments and looks a bit smarter too, even when worn with bat dung and orange clay covered Adidas trainers…

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