Swannie: warming Kiwis for 91 years

19:54, Jul 15 2012

It was one of those really nice, feel-good reads in the newspaper that evokes fond memories and an acknowledgement of quality.

The story, covering half a page in the Waikato Times including photos, was a piece by reporter Angela Cuming "on an iconic piece of clothing popular with cockies and townies". The story appeared on the last day of the National Fieldays, and briefly plotted the rise and rise of the now-ubiquitous Swannie - a series of rugged garments originally designed for serious outdoor work, both for warmth and durability.

The trademark was registered in 1913 by 40-year-old William Broome, an English-born tailor, who set up his business in New Plymouth.

That the brand has lasted a century is a sure and honest testament to the fact that Kiwis reckon "it's a bit of all-right gear", and Angela Cuming's article certainly sparked some good memories for me of early hunting days; times in the bush when I was very glad to haul on my big green Swanndri bush-shirt and thereby feel able to tough it out in unpleasant conditions. I'll bet it sparked similar memories for a thousand others, too.

I got my first Swannie in about August 1965, when two mates - Gridpipe and Grbch - and I were planning a deer-stalking trip up on to the Kaimanawa tops, south-east of Turangi. Gridpipe already had one, and recommended I get one, too. The Kaimanawa region can get a bit crisp at that time of year. I think I got that long-tailed bush-shirt at the local Wright-Stevenson's farmers' store, and I've always regretted that I didn't get one at least one size bigger than the one which neatly fitted over my townie clothing at the time.

These days, of course, most of half a century on, the garment appears to have shrunk appreciably, and is, at best, very snug.


I've still got it though, and it's still in remarkably good condition, in spite of having travelled a great many miles across some wonderful and sometimes rough New Zealand outback country.

I took it to Adelaide when I worked there for a couple of years in the early 1970s. The South Australian capital city can get quite cool in the winter, and I remember arranging to get at least one long Swannie bush-shirt sent over for a cousin there who regularly rode a motorbike. He'd tried mine and wanted one, come hell or high water.

That August in 1965 provided me with a memory still vivid in my mind: the three of us had wandered way along the Kaimanawa open tops, then, as the weather turned nasty, we headed back to camp. In the process we came across several hinds with yearlings, visible vaguely through thickening, swirling cloud that was beginning to fire needle-sleet into our faces from the sou-east. There was a brief flurry of firing, and the deer disappeared unharmed into the mist.

We carried on along the ridge, and but for Grbch's unerring sense of direction we may well be mouldering out there still.

I have a grim recollection of hugging into my new Swannie, collar turned high, front laced tight, beanie pulled low, and snow gradually accumulating across my hunched left shoulder and down the left side of my bush-shirt.

Never was I so glad to have such a seriously-good outdoor garment.

Since then I've accumulated other Swannie "fashionwear" pieces - a couple of thick wool shirts (one of them a 2XL which still provides spacious comfort over a bunch of warm layers); several more upmarket smart-casual shirts; and one of the classic zip-fronted, fully-lined hip-length jackets in the traditional tartan-style pattern. Mine is largely grey, with a red cross-hatch.

I got it in Whitianga about 1985, have given it a good bit of wear since then, and it's still in "as-new" condition. The heavy wool shirts, inevitably, have had close and interesting differences of opinion with such impediments as bush-lawyer, manuka spikes and barbed-wire boundary fences, but they're more than holding their own.

An old friend, now long in the happy hunting ground and no doubt warmly clad as well, always wore a Swanndri heavy wool shirt. Summer or winter, I never saw old Frank without one. In the summer, it was just the shirt, front fully unzipped, and a pair of moleskin or saddle-tweed trousers. In the winter, it depended on the temperature. He lived at Ngaroma and then later at Mangakino, both central North Island villages renowned for their frosts.

If it was cold, Frank wore two Swannie shirts; a three-shirt day meant a good deal of grit on the highway between Wharepapa South and Mangakino, and frost-heave standing proud all day along the south-facing roadside banks, with Frank and his good lady Iris sitting close around their little cluttered dining table and the wood-fire stove sparking merrily.

Frank had been a bushman most of his life, and he knew well the value of wool to retain body heat, whether it was wet or not.

Another friend who swore by his long Swanndri bush-shirts - he had several during a lifetime of hunting and bush-bashing - was Don. I was privileged to speak at a service of remembrance for him earlier this year, and I read aloud a story he'd recounted some years previously about getting lost in the Urewera bush-country about 1970.

"I spent a night under a log the first night, wasn't able to get a fire going and got drenched for my trouble," he recalled. "The second day I found a big hollow beech tree and earmarked it for the following night in case I didn't get out. I didn't, so I went back to [the tree] and got a good fire going at the base of the tree. Sometime during the night I rolled into the fire and burnt the backside out of my Swanndri. I walked all the next day and came out at the Minginui forestry camp just as a search was being organised. When I got home I wrote to the Swanndri company and told them about my experience and how my Swannie had probably saved my life but had got the bum burned out if it, and they sent me a brand new Swannie, which was very nice of them."

And that seems the universal appraisal from owners of Swannie gear for the 99 years it's been on the Kiwi market. It's good stuff.

Ironically, the manufacturers bemoan the fact that "most Kiwis only buy one or two Swanndri jackets in a lifetime" because the clothing doesn't have built-in fall-to-bits or rot-away capabilities. Such problems are no doubt a marketing nightmare, but what a great sales pitch.

It is, indeed, an iconic product, such as few other garments in this country have become. And, importantly, it has spanned the national market: it's fashionable enough for both men and women in city and country alike; kids love it because "it's like what my Dad wears"; and for everyone in the outdoors, whether out there for recreation or because that's where they habitually work, one or other of the sturdy jackets or shirts does the job.

There's not many others out there who can boast that they've helped keep the nation warm and dry for the past three or four generations.

Good on ya, Swanndri!


Kingsley Field's columns are exclusive to waikatotimes.co.nz

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