Wool, actually merino wool is pretty amazing stuff. Its fibers are very tightly crimped and treasured for their ability to retain their shape, wick moisture away from the skin, and be itch-free.
Merino wool has natural odor resistant properties and can be worn for a considerable amount of time before it needs washing. This is a huge advantage on long trips or camping. In fact, the fiber has a scaly surface that does not attract bacteria, so it’s also smell-free. Even after many days of wearing the same shirt, it still smells okay.
Many people think that wool is itchy. Well, some wool IS, but not the superfine merino wool that is used to make base layer clothing. It’s amazingly soft, and if your skin could talk, it would tell you to wear wool. Every day.
Merino wool tends to be woven in three basic weights— lightweight, midweight and heavyweight. The lightest weight is worn next to the skin, and the heavier weight clothes are layered over top. When layering, plan how the necklines line up, so that you can unbutton or unzip each layer as you need to cool off.
This winter we replaced much of our fleece pull-overs and synthetic long johns with merino superfine wool garments. Our first purchases were at the Icebreaker and Golite stores at the Woodburn Company Stores. Scoring heavily discounted items made the transition less painful. You’d be out some serious green if you pay full price! You can find great deals online, too, at places like Sierra Trading Post and Backcountry.com.
SmartWool is one of my favorite brands. Their four-weight system (micro, light, mid and heavy) is easy to understand and the fit of their performance line is excellent. Icebreaker, a New Zealand company, incorporates intricate seam details and multiple weave patterns in a single garment. It uses a numeric system (120/150/200/260/300 grams per meter square) to delineate fabric weights that is a little more challenging to follow. Both companies have a variety of product lines for specific sports, uses and body types. Other companies such as Stoic, Emu, Golite and Ibex offer a limited range of merino products that are also worth a look.
When we traveled to Costa Rica earlier this month, we each packed some wool shirts to see how we’d like wearing wool in equatorial conditions (90 degrees, 100 percent humidity). Well, we can honestly report that it was very comfortable to wear! Yes, we sweated. A lot. But the wool breathed, wicked the sweat away and smelled fresh, even after repeated wearing. We were gone for 13 days, and we just packed a carry on bag. It was a relief to be able to travel light for once.
What kind of care and feeding does merino need? Well, it’s designed to be washable. By YOU. There’s no need to pay for dry cleaning. Most garments can be machine-washed using warm water and line-dried. I like to take a little better care of our wool clothing, mostly because it’s expensive. So I use Nikwax Wool Wash to hand wash similar colors. It is formulated to increase the softness and wicking ability of merino wool. Just a half cap full takes care of 4 or 5 tops at once. Squeeze out the excess water, roll up in a bath towel and hang dry overnight.
I’m still holding onto my circa 1980 REI silk long underwear, though. They’re still going strong, but I’ll save them for posterity.