Tucked away on one of the upper floors of an old textile mill in the West Yorkshire town of Slaithwaite, is a small team of skilled craftspeople dedicated to manufacturing the world's best mountain shirt. Like most good ideas, McNair mountain shirts were born from the pursuit of something better - something of nature, not against it. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the home of McNair and tour their workshop where I found out exactly what goes into making their shirts and met the people behind the brand.
The concept, dreamed up by friends Richard Hamshire and Neil McNair and realised with help from the invaluable experience of technical fabric expert Natalie Stapleton, is a simple one: Use the original technical fabric, wool, to create a comfortable, breathable garment that looks good and stands in stark contrast to the technicolour neon nightmares seen on ski slopes the world over.
If that wasn't enough, they wanted to do it all right at the seat of the British wool manufacturing - in Huddersfield. Today, every aspect of making a McNair shirt - the weaving, milling, raising, steaming, cutting, sewing and finishing - is done within ten miles of their HQ with most processes being carried out totally in-house. This is proper manufacturing and these are proper shirts.
Each shirt is made up of more than 45 individual pieces, lovingly put together by hand and on individual machines in the McNair workshop. The workshop is light, spacious and airy with windows on 3 sides and the rhythmic hum of sewing machines droning beneath the low chat of their operators. There are decades of experience in the workshop and each shirt proudly bears the name of the person who worked on it on the inside label (Thanks, Lesley!).
The attention to detail at play here is at times overwhelming to the lay person. The processes and practices that go into making a McNair shirt are myriad and varied - bar tacking, Van Dyck stitching, twin needling, overlocking and thermally bonded acolyte threads to name just a few. All these indicators of the level of quality McNair offer are testament to the original dream. These shirts are in a class of their own, head and shoulders above the nylon and plastic garments that other outdoor brands have been pedalling to us for years.
Depending on the style, the original shirts are made from varying weights of merino wool, carefully processed to improve thermal efficiency and weather resistance. When paired with a merino base layer, the mountain shirt eliminates the need for a traditional shell-based set up and provides the best temperature regulation available. The shirts really have to be tried on to be believed. There is an immediate feeling of reassuring quality when you first try on a McNair and it's a feeling that never goes away.
The true beauty of the McNair mountain shirt lies in it's simplicity: Merino wool is a legendary insulator, renown across the world for its ability to thermally regulate temperatures and its hard wearing nature. A choice of fabric is available; soft virgin merino or recycled merino which offers a tougher finish. Both are extremely warm, water resistant and help regulate temperature and resist odours. A McNair Mountain Shirt will keep you more comfortable in more variable conditions for longer than anything else on the mountain.
McNair have recently started to offer new styles and fabrics to complement their original range. PlasmaDry™ technology transforms traditional moleskin and corduroy fabrics at a molecular level to vastly increase water and stain resistance. Conventional waterproof jackets use fluorocarbons to prevent water ingress and create the coveted 'beading' effect. As well as being environmentally unfriendly, Fluorocarbon and DWR technology isn't as durable as you might expect. The coating is lost in the wash and is removed by abrasion, typically with rubbing from rucksacks. This isn't a problem with Merino.
Following the success of their current operations, McNair have big plans to bring more of their processes in-house and create an even more sustainable method of producing their shirts. There are also plans for new products and a recent collaboration with the Royal Air Force snowboard team could be the start of many.
The work that goes into a McNair shirt is truly impressive. It was a pleasure to tour the workshop and see the place my favourite bit of kit was made. The level of attention and care that goes into each shirt is truly incredible. Thanks to Natalie and Richard for their time and the invite. I'm looking forward to seeing what's next for McNair.