The Schöffel gilet – I’m a fan but would I be tempted to wear anything else?
Charles Hartley cuts through the multitude of gilets on the market and puts four to the test, from old favourites to new acquaintances
The Schöffel gilet has become synonymous with countryside attire, as this smart yet utilitarian garment has sprung up everywhere, from farmers’ fields and lines of beaters to the offices of land agents and gentry nestled into grouse butts. If you go to a game fair or wander the grounds of our agricultural colleges, a fleece Schöffel gilet is as good as a uniform for those who identify with fieldsports. (There’s even an Instagram account called Schöffel Spotted)
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Living in a Schöffel gilet
I am proud to say that I am part of this army of country-philes, when after stealing my father’s Schöffel gilet (an Oakham) five years ago, I found myself living in it. This is not some strange group mentality, or even subliminal signalling to others who ‘know’, but testament to its endless functionality. In the summer as a top-layer, in the winter as a mid-layer, arms-free for people of action, hardy for thrashing through brambles and smart atop a shirt and tie at work.
So, this winter, after six years of hard use between my father and me, my Oakham finally lost its edge as the faux-suede trim frayed. My dear wife quickly snuck a new gilet into my Christmas stocking but, bought from a high-street brand, it lasted all of two hours before the poor-quality fleece pilled up. ((Read more on the best fleece shooting gilets here.)
Going back to the drawing board, I popped “fleece gilet” into Google and was met with a huge array of options and a wider range of prices. This raised the question: where to go next? In step four venerable country brands, each backing their products and putting a gilet to me for testing.
Without years to compare them with the Oakham Schöffel gilet, I have come up with a handful of ‘litmus tests’: a week each of cold winter morning dog walks; the style test judged by my office; the ‘baby crawl’ wear test; the ‘Hartley’s forgotten his coat again’ drying test; as well as a day out shooting. This will go in hand with my own views on quality, practicality and value for money.
First up, Alan Paine’s Aylsham. A pure-bred British brand and a proud supporter of shooting. My first impressions were great; the build quality is exceptional, seams finished well, robust zip, faux-suede piping, matching collar and mid-waist elastic adjuster to give a tailored shape. Though the ladies of the office weren’t sure of my personal choice of colour, this gilet comes with the largest variety of colour choices in this test.
The fleece is relatively thick, but it’s not heavy due to the polyester construction. This choice of material is also good for durability and without natural fibres is not going to pill up. With the material’s smooth profile, it won’t snag while in the rough stuff. I even saw a degree of visual rain resistance while in the field, as the drops held on the surface instead of soaking straight in; this is not something that is advertised, but certainly interesting to see. On my frosty morning dog walks it made a cosy mid-layer, and in the office it was a smart top-layer over a shirt and tie.
I find it comfortable, great for the office and fit for purpose in the field. This duality of use is what has made a gilet such a mainstay of the country fraternity, so it certainly passes with flying colours.
The second in the test is the Seeland Woodcock. This brand has been known in the UK for many years and, although it is based in Denmark, is a British cornerstone. Summing up its kit from previous experience and drawing from its own mantra, the brand aims to produce items that are affordable yet fit for purpose.
This is an extremely lightweight fleece that carries the piping style of the Schöffel but without using suede-like materials. This is interesting as, although it is not as luxurious, you wouldn’t know without close inspection and this material will suffer less from wear and tear. With its lightweight nature, it is one of the two most breathable on test but was not as warm as the others. Much of this is down to its design as Seeland has made it clear that this is intended first as a mid-layer; thicker gilets could prove too bulky for this function.
That said, it is more than smart enough for sitting upon a shirt, after a day’s shooting or around the office, and I can see this as the perfect ‘back of the car gilet’ for the summer months, as well as a layer on a cold winter’s day. The Woodcock received a lot of praise around the office due to its well-tailored shape, gained without ‘body hugging’ for those who identify more as a rugby forward than back.
The only thing I could criticise is the quality of finish. When inspected closely, seams are not as well finished, there aren’t the ‘extras’ you get with others and the zip is the lightest weight. But, as this gilet is around two-thirds the price of the closest comparison, the quality it does have is impressive and the functionality is phenomenal.
Next, Schöffel’s Orkney and the only non-fleece gilet. Schöffel came into the test with nothing to prove after dominating this category for years, but what else hides in its range? Country folk can be creatures of habit, but this is not always good and the Orkney raises the question of whether other materials might do the same job better.
This gilet is made of merino, which boasts good insulation, is moisture-wicking, doesn’t itch and remains relatively lightweight — all while being completely natural, sustainable and machine-washable. Although it is not as pill-proof as the 100% man-made fibres, merino is a huge improvement on classical wool. In my ‘baby crawl’ wear test, although it did slightly frizz, this brushed out, leaving me genuinely impressed. It was the warmest gilet on test and at the same time remained breathable.
It’s arguably the smartest, too, proving a hit at the office and looking at home aloft plus-fours on a day’s shooting. I would regard this as a luxury piece, with quality stitching, real leather piping and a strong two-way zip. And although it is the most expensive gilet on test, I would not regard it as overpriced. The only thing I would say against it is that it would not be my ‘go to’ for a day’s rough shooting and does hold dog hair more than the others, though I doubt Schöffel had this in mind when it added this gilet to its range.
The last on test is the Sasta Laavu, and I know what you’re thinking — who? Until this review I had never heard of Sasta, but as I opened the packaging of the Laavu, my first clue came with the blaze orange hanging loop. Based in Finland, Sasta is proud of its hunting heritage and strives for sustainability, using 77% recycled plastic in the fleece. Unlike other brands, Sasta also provides a mending service, offering patching work and zip repairs for old kit. I have to say, I love this ethos. They are stocked within the UK but the company is looking to enlarge its presence in this market, with kit that is high quality and priced accordingly.
The gilet itself is quite different from the others, with no piping and not a classically British cut. But it fits well, and although piping is a stylish addition, it serves no real purpose. This gilet is still smart without it, in part due to its high standard of finish, quality two-way zip and leather labelling. It is a ‘fleece gilet’ but has a very different surface to others, almost the look of fine weave. This makes for a neat exterior that, like the other polyesters, is seemingly ‘bomb-proof’.
The most impressive aspect of this gilet is the thermal and moisture-wicking properties. It is extremely light yet was the second warmest. In the wet to dry test, it dried in an unbelievably short space of time. I will stress that none of the gilets are meant to be rain-proof, but we all know we get caught out and knowing kit will recover quickly is an important factor to me.
This gilet makes a brilliant mid-layer and I would class it as an item that I would happily wear on top. I look forward to seeing what else comes from Sasta as it takes to the UK market.
The Sasta is perhaps my favourite, though I would say that due to fear of the unknown I don’t think that its unit sales will outstrip the other brands in 2023. As for the others, it is a true horses for courses situation — they were all fantastic and it is up to you to decide which aspects fit you best. I would see myself in the high-quality Schöffel on a driven day and the Alan Paine in the office, yet the Seeland will probably see the most use and simply cannot be rivalled on value.