What Are Moleskin Pants?

Moleskin, is a durable, densely woven material made of pure cotton. Not to be confused with the Italian paper and journal manufacturer ‘Moleskine,’ the fabric is similar to corduroy and velvet, with a high-quality yarn tightly woven to create the hardy textile. While corduroy is trimmed to create ribs, moleskin is sheared close over the whole of one side for a suede-like feel. The rich nap of the soft-brushed fabric hints at luxury, though the tough material began as rugged working wear.

The History of Moleskin

  • Moleskin cloth was developed during medieval times, favored for its durability and warmth.
  • During the 1800s, steelworkers relied on moleskin aprons and pants for protection from molten metal.
  • 19th-century farmers and laborers wore pants and jackets made from the long-lasting, wind- and-water-resistant cloth.
  • Moleskin trousers began to shift toward casual wear, becoming popular with estate owners and sportsmen, but maintained their industrial reputation.
  • From the 1960s to 1990s, the West German Army used an unshorn version of the textile.
  • In 1976, Orvis introduced moleskin pants—dubbed ‘ratcatchers’—to the USA.

What are the benefits of moleskin pants?

Moleskin pants perform wonderfully in the field—the dense textile protects against snags from brambles and briars, and the wind-resistant nap weathers a variety of outdoor conditions. Teflon® or other coatings may be added to extend water-repelling properties, but the hefty fabric blocks moisture naturally. They are built to protect against the elements on any outing, and can endure season after season of hard use.

Versatile moleskin pants aren’t just for the outdoors. A soft pile creates an easy, comfortable piece that feels broken in from the first wear. Trousers made of moleskin add sophistication to any wardrobe and transition from office to dinner party with ease.

When do you wear moleskin clothing?

Moleskin clothing, most commonly pants and jackets, is ideal for the sportsman’s lifestyle. Leather-tough, yet incredibly comfortable, moleskin trousers are a popular pick for hunting, fishing, or hiking. While traditionally worn in cooler weather—moleskin’s tight weave retains warmth—the cotton fabric is also breathable, making it a suitable choice for summer as well.

Moleskin trousers are also sought after as casual and business casual attire, though they are not as relaxed as jeans. The subtle texture and elegant finish of the crisp-looking material make moleskin pants ideal for informal occasions. They pair handsomely with a knit sweater or jacket suited to the season. A heavier fabric like tweed or wool is a smart choice on brisk days. For summertime wear, choose a lightweight knit cardigan or jacket in a complementary color.

How do you wash moleskin pants?

Garments made with moleskin are generally easy to clean but will include instructions that recommend either dry cleaning or washing inside-out on a gentle cycle. Line drying is recommended. And, as with all cotton clothing, colors will fade with each wash, creating a comfortable, broken-in look.

So… Moleskin Isn’t Actually Mole Skin?

Nope. Moleskin is cotton.

But there is a reason that moleskin fabric is named after the hardy underground tunneler. A mole’s short fur does not grow in any particular orientation; it can be brushed with ease in any direction. This is different from most other animals, on whom the fur grows in one direction, from head to tail. And it is a boon to the mole, which moves both forward and backward in its underground tunnels, brushing its fur every which way. 

Moleskin’s short brushed nap has the same velvety ability to move easily in any direction.

What Is Moleskin Used For?

Moleskin is most often used to make sturdy and stylish pants. Moleskin is a thick and rugged fabric that stands up easily to tough wind and chill. At the same time, since it’s cotton, it’s breathable. This means it’s suitable for indoor wear as well as for tough outdoor conditions. (Note that while thick cotton is both warm and breathable, it absorbs water rather than repelling it. Thus, if moleskin trousers are to be waterproof, they must be specially treated with a waterproofing agent.)

Outdoors, most people find moleskin trousers comfortable across a slightly wider temperature span than denim. At the high end of the thermometer, it’s comfortable about where a thick pair of jeans would be comfortable: For a lot of people, that’s in the 70’s. But on the low end, moleskin truly shines. Its dense, windproof weave tends to keep the wearer warmer than denim would. 

For indoor wear, moleskin trousers hit a sweet spot that a lot of people don’t even realize exists. They are dressier than jeans, and sturdier than khakis. They can pair well with a blazer or sport coat for a dressier look, or with a sweater for a casual look.

Moleskin’s versatility is demonstrated by its history. Moleskin trousers were popular with British laborers in the early 1900s. Soon, landowners saw the incredible value of the sturdy, warm material for use while hunting and shooting. That’s why moleskin is right in there with tweed, leather and boiled wool as a traditional fabric for continental shooting.

Moleskin is slightly costly to produce: Its tight weave, shearing, and brushing all require specialized equipment that can withstand great fabric tension while also operating with incredible accuracy. British workers eventually switched to cheaper denim. But by then, the gentry were sold on the weatherproof, briar-proof, comfortable moleskin fabric that looks stylish and wears like iron. Enough demand for it remained to keep the specialized mills that produce moleskin in business. 

On this side of the Atlantic, Orvis introduced moleskin in 1976, and for more than 40 years it has been one of our most popular options in cool-weather pants. Orvis moleskin is made to the material’s exacting original standards, sourced only from a British mill that has been producing it since 1901.

How Many Mole Skins Would Be Required for One Pair of Pants?

Again, just so we’re clear, moleskin is cotton. But if it were made of mole skins, how many would be needed? 

Of course, the answer depends on the size of the mole and the size of the pants. But even using the largest moles, for an average pair of men’s pants, it’s safe to say hundreds. A 1917 USDA guide to mole trapping and tanning advises that an average size muff for warming the hands requires about 20 skins of the larger northwestern mole (Townsend’s mole), or 40 skins of the smaller eastern mole. Four muffs’ worth of fabric for each leg, and two around the top and for cuffs, mean a minimum of 200 skins. (A cloak like the ones sold in stores, advises the publication, requires about 400 skins of the Townsend’s mole, and presumably 800 of the eastern mole.)

Of course, such pants would not be very breathable, and you almost certainly couldn’t wear them to the office. Probably best to stick with tried-and-tested, classic cotton moleskin trousers.

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