Richard Negus goes in search of a perfect shooting jumper and learns how a woollen offering was made to conquer mountains

Tradition is a fickle thing when it comes to shooting. While most of us are perfectly happy to pull a museum piece out of the gun slip as we get to our peg, the notion of wearing similarly archaic kit singles you out as something of an oddball.

Obviously, tweed garments in some shape or form appear in most wardrobes. But when temperatures plummet, the rain comes down sideways or sleet obscures the next-door peg, most of us will zip our nylon bodywarmers to the neck and pull on a Gore-Tex softshell drysuit faster than you can say hypothermia.

I am inclined to think we are missing a trick and my submission for the defence of natural fibres and traditional tailoring is the humble sweater — in particular one worn by a great British hero.

George Mallory was one of a crop of quite extraordinary British explorers and adventurers, who underlined our nation’s reputation for derring-do in the decades straddling World War I. Along with Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, Mallory’s dash, bravery and ultimately tragic death on Everest epitomises the stoicism that Britons then, and now, like to believe is a national characteristic.

George Mallory with Everest Group

Explorer George Mallory (back row, right) with fellow members of the 1921 Mount Everest expedition

Birth of a myth

Mallory, a Cheshire-born soldier turned teacher at Charterhouse School, was at the time this country’s leading mountaineer. Black-and-white images of the handsome explorer show a haunted face, rarely smiling. The photos taken of him and climbing partner Sandy Irvine by John Noel led to the birth of a myth. It was widely believed the pair made their bid to conquer Everest wearing nought but tweed jackets, felt hats and breeks.

Like many such tales, the story is far from reality. Mallory was no greenhorn. He had already partaken in preliminary expeditions in 1921 and 1922, and was all too aware of the challenges before him.

Mallory’s 1924 campaign to reach the summit was no amateurish, tweedy affair. In truth, he was well prepared. He carried with him and wore the best kit available at the time. On 8 June, the pair set off from their final base camp and began to climb.

They were seen disappearing into cloud on an overhang known as the Third Step, some 150m from their goal. They never reappeared. Whether Mallory and Irvine died on their way down from Everest’s summit or expired having fallen short remains a matter of debate.

Some modern mountaineers argue that Irvine’s inexperience led to the pair falling. Others blame the clothing they wore, stating that it was inadequate and would have led to exposure. To try to answer these questions, in 1999 a British expedition set out to find Mallory.

Remarkably they succeeded, discovering his wind-blasted body half-buried on a scree slope about 500m below the Third Step. More remarkable still, the clothes that some declared had contributed to his death still clung to his body, tattered and torn, but intact.

Mallory was interred where he fell and the fragments of his kit were taken off Everest. These were analysed and studied, along with the expedition’s record books. From this, two suits of Mallory’s wardrobe were reconstructed. One became a museum piece, the other was made to fit Graham Hoyland, a noted mountaineer of the modern era. In 2006, Hoyland attempted his own ascent of Everest wearing Mallory’s kit and following his route.

Fair isle jumper

Traditional knitwear boasts many advantages over some of the modern synthetic materials

Up to the task

Sporting undergarments of silk, a silk shirt in muted colours, hand-knitted socks, woollen jumper and cardigan, metal-cleated leather boots, and a jacket and plus fours made of gabardine, Hoyland satisfied himself that not only did the kit stand up to the rigours of the task, but the tailored layers of natural fibres in many ways surpassed modern synthetic materials.

The gabardine was windproof and the eight thin layers of silk and wool trapped air and allowed him to move with a level of freedom rarely found in modern kit. This should not come as such a great surprise to those who have served in the Army.

We have recently marked the 40th anniversary of the Falklands campaign. Of the many lessons senior officers learned from that war, one was how unsuited to combat most of the issued kit was in the harsh conditions of the South Atlantic.

One of the few items to pass the acid test was the humble military staple, the woolly pully, more formally known as jersey heavy wool. It worked in 1982 and continues to keep soldiers warm today, provided they haven’t shrunk it in the wash.

The woollen knitwear worn by Mallory was identified by the maker’s label that was still stitched in the jumper’s nape. It bore the name ‘W F Paine, 72 High Street, Godalming’.

William Paine opened his knitwear business in 1907. Mallory knew Paine as Charterhouse School sits in the leafy Surrey town. Little wonder then that the adventurer called upon him to provide the inner garments for his attempt on Everest — Burberry, for the record, supplied the gabardine jacket and breeches.

The name Paine and knitwear may start ringing bells. William handed on the company to his son, Alan, and the Alan Paine brand continues to this day as a maker of sturdy woollens and traditional yet affordable sporting attire. Having been inspired by the discovery of Mallory’s body and the reconstruction of his kit, Alan Paine created its Explorer Collection.

shooting jumper

There is a feel of high quality and unashamed ruggedness to the Alan Paine Fordwich jumper

Mountaintop test

The jumpers and cardigans in the range use the same styling and natural wool as those worn by Mallory. My Fordwich is a Guernsey in a sage green colour. The six-ply merino yarn is coated with Teflon, making it water and stain resistant.

It is deliciously warm on its own; add a few thin layers underneath and Hoyland’s mountaintop assessment on the efficacy of Mallory’s clothing is there for you to feel.

Cuffs, collars and hems are ribbed, and the garment is hand-finished, giving it a feel of quality as well as ruggedness. I challenge you to find fault with this sweater. It was designed for a hero and you feel like one wearing it, even if the only dangerous climb you take on is clambering into the Gun bus after lunch.

Gun mount

Gun mount is easy when wearing a knitted jumper such as the Streetly V-neck

Smart and practical

For some, the styling of the Fordwich is possibly too adventurous. For those who prefer the traditional combination of jumper, Tattersall check shirt and tie as their shoot-day attire, the Alan Paine Streetly lambswool V-neck is for you.

It is smart, hand-finished to a notably high quality and has a level of tactility that led to my wife stroking my back for a full minute after I pulled it on. Mine is in an autumnal bracken hue. This is just the sort of apparel for an early-season day on a moor or standing in the lee of a hedge waiting for a covey of partridges to starburst — practical and with sufficient style to keep your shoulders back.

The practicality of wearing sweaters like these over thin under-layers is clear. Gun mount is easy; if it comes on to rain and you don a coat, you don’t feel as if you are wearing a fat suit. Woollens of old had a terrible reputation for being fine until you wash them. Not so with these. The Streetly is machine washable at 30°C and the Fordwich requires only marginally more care.

Why not release your inner hero this season? Shun the ubiquitous man-made fibre gilet and give some Alan Paine wool a try. If nothing else, telling your fellow Guns that you are sporting the jumper Mallory wore on Everest is guaranteed to deflect attention from any failures in your shooting. ‘‘“Mallory was no greenhorn — he carried and wore the best kit available at the time

Where to buy

Streetly V-neck jumper RRP £95

Fordwich rolled collar jumper RRP £176