About Merino Wool Outdoor Clothing
If you’ve ever seen photos of mountaineers in the early 20th century, you might have pitied them for their cumbersome equipment and layers of heavy, stiff wool clothing. Yet wool got Hillary and Norgay to Everest’s peak in 1954, and for all we know, Mallory and Irvine touched the summit in 1924. They couldn’t make it at all without this durable, insulating fabric, nor could early adventurers as far back as 5000 B.C., when South African shepherds first learned to shear their animals, spin the fibers into yarn, and weave the wool into cloth.
It took a while for Europeans to catch on. The earliest sample of European wool fabric was discovered in a Danish bog and dated to 1500 B.C. (Unfortunately, for all its qualities, wool doesn’t float.) Wool fabric has evolved since then, as has our ability to conquer new horizons. One of those evolutions came when Merino sheep were introduced to Spain from North Africa, sometime around 1500 B.C. It was a rare breed, and its fiber was only until recently considered a luxury. Now? For many adventurers, outdoor merino clothes are a necessity thanks to their anti-microbial properties, soft texture, lightweight, and their ability to provide warmth and insulation even in wet weather.
What Sets Merino Apart from the Flock
Wool fibers are measured in microns. The smaller the micron number, the lighter and silkier the wool. The top sheep breeds raised for meat in North America are Dorsets (27-33 microns) and Hampshires (25-33 microns) whose wool is professionally shorn by shearers more for ease of management than it is for the animal’s comfort: wool has both warming and cooling properties.
Wool from these “meat” breeds is considered a low-quality byproduct, and it’s sold to textile mills as a commodity. Most wool products available today? Yep. This itchy stuff.
Merino sheep, while definitely tasty, are bred for their fine, high-crimp wool fibers ranging from 18-24 microns wide. Merinos share the title of finest, silkiest wool with the Rambouillet sheep, a breed derived from a Merino cross.
What does “crimp” mean? It’s the “kink” in a strand of wool. The more kink, the more the fibers can lock together and provide “loft”, or fluffy, air-trapping insulative value. Between crimp, loft, and tiny hair widths, Merino wool makes lightweight, durable, and breathable fabric. It quickly became the preferred fiber for lace, baby clothes, and underwear due to its delicate texture, breathability, and ability to withstand daily use. Today, it’s a valuable fabric for both fashion and functionality. Women’s Merino wool clothes were once a luxury, but with the increased interest in sustainable, natural fibers, more Merino shepherds are taking an interest in the breed to produce textiles for everyday use and outdoor adventures.
Why is Wool Still a Thing? Isn’t Synthetic Fleece Superior?
Merino wool and high-quality polyester fleece complement one another, rather than compete. And we’re not just saying that because the KÜHL® founders developed their first award-winning clothing products from synthetic fleece technology when fleece was in its infancy.
Before your mind wanders off to green plastic turf pastures dotted with tiny, fluffy, synthetic lambs, check out this comparison of Merino wool and high-quality polyester fleece:
- Fleece dries faster than wool.
- Fleece generates static, which can be a good thing if you want to “zap” unsuspecting trail buddies. It’s a bad thing if you don’t want to look like a lint roller.
- Wool keeps you warm when it’s wet; fleece does not. Ever been caught in a downpour while hiking? Merino wool clothes would have saved the day.
- Fleece is easier to wash than wool.
- Wool doesn’t absorb odors. Most fleece does. (No really, you’re better off bunking with a sheep than you are with a poly-fleece-clad climbing partner.)
- Wool is naturally hypoallergenic. It’s also resistant to bacteria (hence the lack of B.O.!) and it repels dust mites. Fleece needs to be chemically treated to have the same qualities.
- Wool “takes” natural dyes better than polyester fleece.
- Sunshine and grass fuel the sheep that make wool. Polyester fleece is a petroleum product.
- Wool fabric doesn’t shed as much as poly fleece, and there’s concern that fibers from cheaply-made synthetic fleece are contributing to water pollution.
Those who are reluctant to use animal products would be relieved to know that wool sheep are treated quite well. Professional shearers use techniques to hold the animals in a position that lulls them into a comfortable “daze”, and they’re so quick and efficient they can remove an entire fleece in under 2 minutes so the animals can go back to the fields with little stress.
You’re more likely to cut yourself shaving or get poked by a hair stylist’s scissors than a sheep is to sustain an injury during the process. Also, wool sheep typically spend far more time frolicking in pastures than other production livestock. How long do you spend in the salon waiting area reading ten-year-old gossip magazines?
Sheep have it better, for sure.
Why Is Merino Wool Clothing A Good Choice for Outdoor Sports
Did we mention wool’s magical abilities to prevent odor buildup? Imagine how your clothing might smell just a few days into a thru-hike, or after they’ve been stuffed in your backpack with your climbing shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight. While wool might take a bit more care to wash, you don’t have to clean it as often as you would other natural or synthetic clothes.
Aside from being an alternative to synthetic clothing, outdoor merino wool clothes wick and absorb moisture from the skin, and allows it to quickly evaporate. This will keep you cool and dry in the summer. The fiber structures create pockets of air within the fabric weave and an “air cushion” between the clothing and the skin to insulate you from the cold. Lanolin, the natural oil from a sheep’s skin, serves as a gas-permeable water repellant. That’s why wool a good choice when you don’t want to bulk of too many external layers.
Have you ever seen pictures of Irish fishermen? Those Aran Isle fisherman’s sweaters weren’t just a fashion statement; they were the example of everything wool has to offer.
Are you into the hipster “vintage” fad? Check out mountaineer Fred Beckey’s 1942 packing list in this Gear Junkie article.
For a long time, the market focused on women’s Merino wool clothes because of the delicate, feminine softness characteristic of the fiber. Then men got a taste when sock manufacturers added merino products to men’s clothing lines. Maybe the name-association with the famous football player, Dan Marino, was the selling point?
Once the demand for men’s Merino wool clothes began to catch on, more and more clothing designers began developing merino wool clothes for hiking, climbing, camping, cycling, and paddling.
Isn’t Merino Wool Clothing Difficult to Clean?
Not at all. Always defer to the care instructions on your garment label, but contrary to what you think, wool isn’t the “delicate flower” of natural fibers. These tips will help clean your Merino wool outerwear and base layers and keep in great shape.
- Let your Merino wool garments “breathe” for a day in between wearings; this will help them air out, dry, and regain their loft.
- Use natural, gentle detergents intended for cashmere or Merino products.
- If you’re going to machine-wash your wool clothes, put them in a mesh delicates bag, set the machine on a cold, gentle cycle. NEVER put them in the dryer.
- Lay your wool garments flat on a clean surface, or on a sweater rack to dry. Don’t let gravity stretch them out.
Remember, wool doesn’t need frequent cleaning due to its antimicrobial properties. You might be better off hosing down your fleece-wearing, stinky tentmate.
Those Merino Sheep are Adorable. Where Can I Get One?
You can find Merino sheep most anywhere. The best place is in New Zealand, one of the biggest Merino-producing countries… and best outdoor adventure destinations. So if you go, be sure to pack something from the KÜHL merino clothing for men or merino clothing for women collections. You’ll be surprised by the utility and comfort of low-micron wool, and as a bonus? You’ll have an “in” with the local sheepies.
Featured image by Victoria Bilsborough.