How to make a ghillie suit

By Kathleen Golden, NMAH
Camo coat

On the third anniversary of the death of Army Specialist Christopher Horton, Curator Kathleen Golden shares the story of his camouflage gear, now in the museum's collection.

What is a ghillie suit, you might ask?

Here's the definition, courtesy of Wikipedia: "A ghillie suit, also known as a yowie suit, or camo tent, is a type of camouflage clothing designed to resemble heavy foliage. Typically, it is a net or cloth garment covered in loose strips of burlap, cloth or twine, sometimes made to look like leaves and twigs, and optionally augmented with scraps of foliage from the area."

Ghillie suit yarn in the museum's collection
Yarn packaged especially for making a ghillie suit in the museum's collection

According to Wikipedia, the first military unit to use a ghillie suit was a Scottish Highland regiment called the Loval Scouts, formed during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). During World War I, they became the British Army's first sniper unit. The definition goes on to say that snipers, hunters, and nature photographers use ghillie suits, but for the purpose of this blog, I'm just going to focus on snipers, and one in particular.

Christopher Horton’s ghillie suit coat
Christopher Horton's ghillie suit coat

In the Spring of 2013, I collected a ghillie suit that had been used by a young Army sniper named Christopher Horton. A ghillie suit had been on my object wish list for years.

If you Google "how to make a ghillie suit," a number of instructional videos pop up. Chris learned how to make his in sniper school. In a document on his computer, he writes:

If phase 1 was the marksmanship/shooting phase, then phase 2 was the field craft phase, even though we still spent as much time on the ranges shooting. All through the first phase, we worked on our ghuillie [sic] suits in anticipation for phase 2. Ghuillie suits help us blend in with our surroundings by breaking up our outline and matching colors to the vegetation we're trying to hide in. If you mix that with tying natural vegetation into the suit itself and a sniper can almost completely disappear, even under optics.

Before your suit is reading [sic] for action, you must conduct a "ghuillie wash" which consists of dragging it through the mud and rolling it around in dirt to give it more of an earth tone. The thing that sucks about doing a ghuillie wash at Sniper School is that the instructors make you do it while you’re wearing it. So as soon as we exited the bus at Ft. Chaffey, we donned our suits and got on line while the instructors proceeded to inform us how much our suits sucked. Then they ran us through a water filled muddy ditch and other various games, which was just a smoke fest. I assumed this was some sort of rite of passage, because this seemed to me to be the most inefficient way to conduct a ghuillie wash.

Imagine sitting down with several pounds of yarn, mixing the different colors to create the camouflage that best suits the environment in which you will be fighting. Your ghillie suit coat and pants both have a grid of bands on them for attaching the yarn; for the coat, you add yarn across the back and down the sleeves, and for the pants you add yarn down the legs. For those of you who have ever hooked a rug, it's kind of like that. To complete the ensemble, add a hat like the one below and camouflage make-up.

Ghillie suit head covering
Ghillie suit head covering
Camo face paint from the museum's collections
Camo face paint from the museum's collections

Christopher Horton's ghillie suit did not have as much use as intended. On September 9, 2011, in Paktya, Afghanistan, Chris was killed by Haqqani fighters (Islamic insurgents). He is buried in Arlington Cemetery. His wife, Jane, donated the suit to us, along with other items of Chris'. Chris is memorialized on Facebook and this website. 

The ghillie suit Chris created is now part of our permanent collection, and will continue as a powerful and personal object to tell the complex story of our Armed Forces to future researchers and visitors to the museum.

Army Specialist Christopher Horton
Army Specialist Christopher Horton

Kathleen Golden is Associate Curator in the Division of Armed Forces History. In the past, she has blogged about soldiers in fur coats and World War II icon Audie Murphy.