On Wild Rags

The wild rag or neckerchief is an eminently functional tool. Worn around the neck, it protects from ultraviolet radiation. When wetted, it provides evaporative cooling. When dry, it can be used as a towel. It offers warmth when the mercury drops, and protection from the wind. It can be used as a furoshiki to bundle items together, or be tied into an impromptu bag. It may be fashioned into a sling, or used to tie a splint. The devolution of the wild rag into something as dumb as the modern necktie is the greatest crime perpetuated by Fashion since the invention of the high heel.

I bought my first wild rag at a used clothing store in 2004, though it wasn’t till seeing a suspiciously similar looking one as part of Viggo Mortensen’s costume in Appaloosa a few years later that I started to think of it as practical field equipment. By 2009 it was a standard part of my backpacking accouterment. Some time later the wild rag graduated to being just normal clothing, particularly when it is unusually hot or cold out. (The original rag that I bought used 19 years ago remains in the rotation.)

The standard size for a wild rag is 36” x 36”. This is larger than a pocket snot rag, which is typically 22” x 22”. It is large enough to be wrapped twice around the neck, with the tails still long enough to be easily knotted in the front. The wild rag will also usually be offered in a larger 44” x 44” size, but I find this too large to be worn.

The most common way to secure the wild rag around the neck is via a square knot. Being a gentleman of taste and culture, I sometimes tie mine in a half windsor. The so-called buckaroo square knot is another option, but I think it is pretty goofy looking. The only buckaroo I want in my life is Banzai.

A slide can be used in place of a knot. I have a couple of slides which are simply elongated ovals of leather with a snap in them. They work, and look nice, but are not as secure as a good knot when flying down a mountain on the bike. One could also use a woggle, but this is associated with people who march around in brown shirts, which I am allergic to.

The proper material for a wild rag is silk. People will try to sell you polyester rags, or blends of silk and cotton. Both are less functional than real, natural silk. The range of weather conditions in which silk remains comfortable is unusually wide. Avoid all imitations.

Silk rags are primarily offered in either Crepe de Chine or Charmeuse. Charmeuse looks and feels incredibly luxurious. It is very soft. One side is shiny and the other matte. But it is also warmer and slightly heavier than Crepe de Chine. Crepe de Chine has a rougher, pebble-like texture to it. It is lighter weight (by about 10 grams for the finished scarf) and better for warm weather, but still useful in the cold. Jacquard, where a pattern is sewn in with a lighter colored thread, is usually applied to Crepe de Chine fabric. Start out with one Crepe de Chine rag, then get one in Charmeuse. Next buy a few more of both, because this is an addiction.

Hems should be serged. Many sellers of silk wild rags offer the same patterns. They’re probably all buying the same bolts of fabric from the same suppliers. When you choose a seller, what you are really buying is the hem. A silk wild rag is not just a piece of fashion, but a durable, long-lasting tool. Serged hems will provide a longer service life than a hem which is simply rolled and stitched. You may save a little on the price with a lesser hem, but you will be disappointed in the long run. I wasted money before learning this lesson.

The best places that I have found to purchase a wild rag are Cowboy Images and Wild West Rag Co. Both apply serged hems to real silk. I’ve bought from both in the past and will buy from both again in the future.

Alternatives like shemaghs and neck tubes have their place, but my preference sits strongly with the silk wild rag.