In this picture it may not look like it, but I’m the layer queen. Snow carving for me is an annual event and previous years I relied heavily on everything fleece to stay warm. Fleece is a cold weather aficionado’s go to. That all changed with my Thiuram mix allergy and bonus polyester allergy. Fleece is glorified polyester that allows you to be out in freezing cold weather with just a few layers. Those layers are designed to wick moisture away from your body unlike natural fibers. Believe it or not, we sweat while we carve in sub zero temperatures. Sweat is one of the worst things for staying warm.

The return to natural fibers for warmth meant layering in a way I haven’t done since I was a kid. I remember when mom dressed me for weather, like we experience snow carving, and there were times bending over or trying to get up off the ground were comical. I flailed like a turtle stuck on her back because my clothes limited my movement.

What snow carving on-lookers often don’t understand is how physically hard we are working. Starting with an 8′ x 8′ x 8′ foot block of snow means moving tons of the stuff for six to eight hours or more a day. It’s pretty amazing how much heat the human body can generate all on its own. The on-lookers walking through the park to watch us have just come out of a warm car, are generally not layered or dressed for extreme weather and are standing around. Of course they get cold and they assume we are as cold as they are.

Most carvers won’t stand still too long to talk to people because they don’t want to get cold, or we chat a while attempting to cool down. Sometimes we’re wearing less than the people who do come dressed for the weather because of the body heat we generate while carving. At times carvers put clothes on, moments later take them off, only to put them back on. It’s a juggling act that requires paying attention to your body. Well it’s not hard to pay attention in extreme weather – our bodies let us know pretty quickly no matter how focused on carving we might be.

In the past I avoided wool because it was too scratchy. I’d heard about merino wool, but hadn’t checked it out assuming it was just as scratchy. Encouraged by a friend I made the great discovery that merino wool is not itchy. The Smartwool company puts it best. “Wool is infamous for being an itchy fabric. Merino wool however, is a different story…These finer fibers also enhance wool’s elastic nature, making garments made with merino wool more able to conform to the shape of the body they’re on, enhancing the garment’s performance and the wearer’s comfort.”  Merino wool comes from merino sheep. I was sold on merino wool after my first encounter with it.

My hands and feet are my primary concern in cold weather. If either are cold the rest of me gets cold quickly, so they are the carnies of my body temperature. I’ve worn Smartwool socks for years and never realized they were merino wool and wanted to wear them again, but was unsure of any other materials they used to construct them that I might have an issue with. I looked up what they’re made of – (depending on the type of sock) 53% merino wool, 44% nylon, 3% elastane. That’s all good except the elastane. A thiuram mix allergy means an allergy to elastic. I don’t know if elastane is elastic. Unable to clarify that with research in time for carving, I put them on a couple weeks earlier and waited. After several days the sock didn’t generate a rash or itch. I was delighted. Either elastane is safe for me or it is deep within the fluff of the wool and nylon of the socks so it doesn’t make contact with my skin. For warm feet snow carving this year I wore Smartwool socks, my Sorels, along with toe warmers.

Toe and hand warmers are a must for carving. This is another product I’d used for years that a thiuram mix made me wary of using. Let’s face it, I am becoming wary of all chemicals now. According to the Grabber packaging, hand and toe warmers “are a non-toxic, environmentally friendly, odorless heat source using ingredients that are non-combustible.” To use them you open the package and expose it to air and it warms up. The ingredients listed on the package are: iron powder, water, salt, activated charcoal and vermiculite. Gratefully nothing harmful for me there.

Fleece and or polyester linings in winter gloves are pretty standard. To keep my hands warm I needed a solution that left my hands with gripping power. Too many layers or thick gloves would be an issue. My carving shovels and tools are sharpened razor sharp so they will easily cut through ice chunks. I’ve seen them cut through many layers of clothing and into skin, so my ability to grip them is vital for safety.

My solution was to line the lining of my favorite gloves by putting a cotton glove inside and sewing it in place. By lunch time those gloves are usually pretty wet so I switch to mittens. My mittens were made locally by Henry. He had a leather shop and made things out of moose hide. The mitts have standard wool liners, yup, they’re itchy, but moose hide is very warm – a good trade off for me. Along with my hand covering I wear merino wool wrist warmers my daughter-in-law, Heather, made for me. A lot of snow can go down your sleeve without them. Those items along with hand warmers, inside the gloves or mitts, placed in the glove on the back of the hand where they warm the blood going into the fingers, and I was set.

On to my head and neck. If I’m going to stay healthy in cold weather I have to protect my neck. I used to wear The Masque face protector for my face along with a fleece neck gater. The masque is made of material similar to a wet suit so is now on the no-wear list. My fleece gaters are also on the no-wear list. A friend suggested I try a neck gater made by Minus 33.  I got one at a local shop and tried it while blowing snow around my house. It was perfect. It easily covered my face, or just my neck and was not itchy. It was so perfect I got a second one. I already had a Smartwool hat knit out of merino wool. Both my sweatshirt and coat have hoods so I had options if the hat wasn’t enough.

Letting go of my fleece long underwear was scary. It was like saying goodbye to your favorite childhood blanket. I had turned to silk, but it was not nearly as warm and had elastic on the waistband. Thiuram mix is in elastic. First I sewed blue cotton fabric over the elastic so I could wear it next to my skin. Then the layering began. I wore thin silk underwear next to my skin, then another thicker (a relative term not really indicating any real thickness) layer of silk, then the last surviving piece of Columbia long underwear I had that is on my no-wear list. I wore that with the assumption that if it was not touching my skin I’d be safe. That proved to be a correct assumption for the most part. However, after three days my legs became very itchy, but no rash developed. The last layer was my snow pants. My snow pants are constructed primarily of polyester, but I refused to give up on them. To remedy the situation I lined the pockets, waste band, and zipper area with green and black cotton. My reasoning was that those were the places I’d touch most often without gloves on. The rest of the polyester left uncovered should be safe. Putting it all together it was bulky. Crawling and sitting on the snow, or should I say getting up from sitting took extra effort, but I was warm.

My choice of coat to wear was something I had to deal with earlier in the season. I’m grateful to live in a town with mom and pop stores that are focused on winter gear and willing to do special orders. I went to see Sue Schurke at Wintergreen Northern Wear. Sue designed and created the gear for the Will Steger and Paul Schurke Dogsled Expedition to the north pole  in 1986. Sue has been fine tuning her clothing line ever since. She showed me her recent design made of all natural fibers, with the exception of the sleeve and pocket lining, which were polyester. The Waxed Cotton Kawishiwi Trail Jacket  is breathable and lined with merino wool. Sue was happy to make one for me to replaced the polyester sleeve and pocket lining with merino wool. It wasn’t long before I discovered it is wind proof. On Minnesota’s coldest days the wind can be our biggest challenge.

My upper layers started with a cotton tee, then a thin silk turtle neck, then heavier layer of silk, then a merino wool shirt, then merino wool sweatshirt with a hood (also from Wintergreen Northern Wear), an optional down vest with vinyl outer shell and the coat. I was warm, but flexibility was the compromise. I also brought along my down jacket that I had also altered with colorful cotton on the surfaces that I touched most often, so I could safely wear it.

As I anticipated I would do, I tossed a bag of clothes in the car, just in case. The clothing insurance bag is always well stocked and could outfit another person. As usual I only used one thing from the bag, my anorak, also from Wintergreen Northern Wear. It came in handy for when the wind picked up, but it was too warm for either jacket. Somehow, knowing the extra clothes were there made me feel more secure.

Getting all of those clothes on was a project that left me yearning for a nap. I trudged out the door, wedged myself into the car and headed to the park to carve. The carving weather ranged from -10° to 9°, which wouldn’t have been bad, but the wind was 13 mph the first two days. The wind felt cutting on bare skin. Saturday brought lots of people wandering the park. Talking with them always makes things feel warmer and more festive. That is, until someone walks by not dressed for the weather. They come in tennis shoes, a light jacket, no hat, thin mittens or non at all. Just looking at them we feel colder.

When all was said and done my team created a carving to be proud of and I was warm during its construction. Now I know I can still look forward to my favorite winter activity without worrying about my clothing. The snow carving I do is part of the annual Ely Winter Festival held in February. This is my 17th year as a professional snow carver, joining the ranks of professional carvers from Canada, Argentina, Russia and all over the country. If you want to see more of my snow carvings over the years go to the Snow Carving page on my personal website

Yes that’s me in the snowflake glasses with this years completed carving titled “It’s All In The Stars.”