Ghillie Suits

Guest post by Jeriah Hildwine

Bob Jones, Ghillie Suit.

Recently on display at 65 Grand was An Object In The Woods, featuring artwork by Bob Jones. One of Jones’ works is titled Ghillie Suit. I hardly needed the title to know what it was about; I’m quite familiar with that soft-edged overspray of Krylon Camouflage Ultra-Flat spray paint (available in Brown, Olive Green, Black, and Khaki) anywhere, particularly with the telltale silhouettes of foliage (in this case hay). The association is a fond one, and the work fits well into Jones’ theme. It is a distinctly rural image, the quintessential “object in the woods.”

A ghillie suit is a garment intended to provide the wearer with concealment, typically in a wooded environment (although desert and snow versions do exist). The most common etymology is that the garment was named after the gillies (“lads” or “servants”), who were Scottish game wardens tasked with protecting a landowner’s game from poachers. These gamekeepers sometimes wore suits of shredded rags to help them blend in with their surroundings, either as a form of portable hunting blind or to conceal themselves from the poachers they were pursuing. The suits entered military usage with the Lovat Scouts, a Scottish Highland unit of the British Army formed during the Second Boer War (1879-1915). This unit served as sharpshooters, and were in some ways the antecedents of the military sniper, who remain the primary users of ghillie suits to this day.

Marine sniper in ghillie suit

A possible alternative etymology, though closely related, may be derived from a Scottish faerie called the ghillie dhu (Irish gillie dubh), which can be translated variously as innocuously as “dark-haired lad” or as menacingly as “dark servant.” He was regarded as something of a game warden himself. A guardian spirit of the trees, the ghillie dhu was said to have clothed himself in leaves and moss, which is a pretty close match to a description of a ghille suit. It’s also a pretty good description for Swamp Thing, who if you’ll recall was also an environmentalist and guardian of the trees.

Ghillie Dhu

The suits are also strikingly similar to Chewbacca (and, in fact, are sometimes called “Chewbacca suits” by those who use them, or as a good-natured razzing by their comrades). Hey, maybe that’s why we haven’t been able to find Sasquatch yet!

Whatever the origin of the name, the ghillie suit has changed little since its introduction at the end of the Nineteenth Century: it’s still pretty much a suit made of shredded rags. Burlap or jute are natural fibers commonly used to create ghillie suits as well, and suits made of synthetic material are becoming more and more popular due to their lighter weight.

All of these materials share the disadvantage of being highly flammable; they can be treated with a moderately-effective flame retardant which must be replenished occasionally, particularly if the suit is washed. (Ghillie suits are not normally washed; in fact rolling around in mud and dirt is a standard part of the breaking-in of a new ghillie suit, to allow it to better blend into the environment.) Non-flammable synthetic ghillie suits are now available commercially, and are in widespread use by the military. Ghillie suits are sometimes also made out of Ikea notebooks:

Military snipers are the best-known users of ghillie suits. The proper construction and use of a ghillie suit form an important part of sniper training today. The use of ghillie suits by military snipers, while widespread, is not ubiquitous. The weight, bulk, and most significantly the heat of a ghillie suit are a serious drawback in the desert, where many recent major conflicts have been taking place. If merely uncomfortable, a sniper may have to simply “suck it up,” but at a point the drawbacks of the suit may outweigh its advantages. This is particularly true in urban environments, where the traditional ghillie suit’s emulation of foliage is less appropriate, although some efforts have been made at designing ghillie suits to blend into developed areas.

Law Enforcement SWAT Teams also use ghillie suits for their snipers, although less frequently than military snipers. This is in part because of the predominantly urban and suburban nature of SWAT team activity, and partly because law enforcement generally announces its presence to the suspect rather than trying to sneak up on him or her. Nevertheless, in some situations concealing a SWAT sniper may confer a tactical advantage, and many departments keep ghillie suits on hand for this purpose.

SWAT ghillie suit.

Ghillie suits are a synonymous with the public’s conception of a military sniper, and have appeared in movies such as Shooter, Sniper, and Clear and Present Danger. The opening of the 2007 movie Shooter is a particularly good depiction of ghillie suits in use:

Ghillie suits are fun and easy to make. There are some great on-line tutorials available, such as this one. You can also buy a ghillie suit, either ready to wear or in kit form. I’ve made a couple of ghillie suit hats. Both started with a broad-brimmed camouflage hat, called a boonie hat, to which I then tied long strips of camouflage fabric, making a sort of ragged net. For the woodland one I added bunches of natural jute gardening twine, then touched up the color with Krylon camouflage spray paint. For the desert one, I just used the strips of fabric. Here you can see me in the Anza Borrego Desert east of San Diego, teaching my little sister how to shoot:

Me and Chelsea in Borrego.

Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. Jeriah Hildwinde is our latest guest poster, contributing an essay on the Ghillie Suit. Jeriah is a Chicago based artist and writer who contributes regularly to Art Talk Chicago.