After spending much of my life as an outdoor enthusiast and traveling to locations in a variety of weather conditions, I am always looking for an advantage against the elements and Mother Nature. That is why several years ago, when someone suggested I try a base layer manufactured from Merino Wool, I thought what the heck. While skeptical that it could perform like the sales person advised, I went ahead and purchased one piece. My first impression was that for the price I am paying, this piece better perform well or I am really going to be disappointed.
To my pleasant surprise, I found that merino wool fabrics perform exceptionally well no matter what the weather or the conditions. The fabric kept me warm in the winter, even while the fabric was wet and cool in the summer. The fabric was comfortable, breathable, did not hold odors, even after several days, dried quickly and never itched.
Over the last several years, many outdoor enthusiasts have made the switch to merino wool and numerous companies now manufacture products containing merino wool. Base layers, underwear, socks, hats, and tee-shirts seem to lead the merino wool market, with more and more items utilizing these wool fibers are manufactured every year. So what is it that makes merino wool perform so well in the outdoors and in so many different conditions? To answer these questions, we first have to start with the sheep.
Over centuries, evolution has blessed the merino sheep from the mountains of New Zealand and Australia, with a super-fine wool fiber. This super-fine wool fiber naturally creates a fabric packed with tiny air pockets that trap air, which keep the wearer warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather. This wool fiber also wicks away moisture for a dry, comfortable feeling. These super-fine merino wool fibers immediately absorb and pull moisture vapor away from the body unlike synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers can only wick the moisture away after it has condensed.
The natural configuration of this wool fiber creates high performance qualities within the fiber, such as warmth, water resistance, odor-resistance, durability, anti-static, and Ultra-violet light protection. This wool fiber can withstand an enormous amount of stress. Studies have shown that this wool fiber can be bent and twisted more than 20,000 times before it will break. These wool fibers also have a natural elasticity that allows them to be stretched up to 33 percent before snapping back to their original length. These wool fibers are also enclosed with a covering similar to skin, that helps them withstand and shed water, rain or spills. The interior of the wool fiber can hold up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture, without the wool fabric feeling damp or clammy, while the exterior is still repelling water and moisture.
The performance of these merino wool fibers, provide numerous advantages for any outdoor enthusiast. Let’s imagine you are on the trail wearing your Merino wool long sleeve zip neck base layer and the weather is providing a light rain or heavy snow. While the microscopic openings in this coating or skin of the wool fiber is allowing the wool to absorb water vapor from body perspiration, the exterior of the fiber is providing a barrier by blocking out larger drops of water. This moisture generated from perspiration is then wicked away to the outer surfaces of the wool garment, where it is evaporated by the air and released.
When moisture does enter the wool fiber, the moisture binds to the chemical structure of wool fiber and small amounts of energy are released in the form of heat. The release of this heat by the wool fiber is what allows you to stay warm on the trail, even though your merino wool base layer may be wet. The composition of wool fibers creates fabrics loaded with small air spaces, which act as a very efficient insulator, adding to wool’s reputation for warmth and comfort. The air that is trapped between the wool fibers and not the fibers themselves, that keeps you warm. Since merino wool fibers are smaller in diameter and more plentiful per area that other wools or fibers, they trap more air pockets and thus keep you warmer.
These performance characteristics of wool help to keep the wearer warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In warm temperatures, fine wool helps keep the wearer cool by transferring heat and body moisture away from the body for a naturally cooling effect. A light wool shirt can actually be cooler and more comfortable for summer wear than a cotton shirt. The water repellent nature of wool also keeps wool fabrics cleaner by repelling stains and spills. Wool’s anti-static qualities also help keep soil particles and dust from being attracted by static charge to wool fabrics.
In the competitive outdoor clothing market, several apparel manufacturers have applied new processing technologies to improve the outdoor performance of this wool. Using the finest New Zealand merino wool and new manufacturing processes, Smartwool, a New England outdoor clothing company and Icebreaker, a New Zealand Company, have lead the way in creating outdoor clothing with exceptional warmth, weight, and durability, that doesn’t itch, shrink or smell, even after days of use.
Looking back, I am very glad that I was introduced to merino wool products. After having used these products in various outdoor activities, in numerous terrain and weather conditions, I am now spoiled and nothing else with now do. Give these products a try, you too might be skeptical, but it should not take long for you to also become a believer.