Why wool is your ticket to warmth

Go retro and get into wool. The explorers' favourite is back in vogue.
Sheep are at home in the mountains. Are you?
Can a sheep save your life? © Icebreaker
By Jakob Schiller

For hundreds of years, wool was the go-to material because of its exceptional warmth.

The secret is in the fibres, which create millions of air pockets that trap the warm air coming off your body. Unlike cotton fibres that collapse when they are wet, squishing those air pockets, wool remains rigid, which means it stays warm even when it’s raining or snowing. Wool is also naturally odor resistant and wicks moisture better than most materials.

“We believe Merino is the best fibre in the world.”

For decades, wool remained a favorite among climbers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts but then fell off in the 1970s when companies started designing synthetic insulations that were more convenient.

Back then wool was itchy and nearly impossible to machine wash because the fibres would catch on each other and bunch up, shrinking the garment. It was also bulky and heavy.

Ibex Wool Aire Hoody © Ibex

“Wool was a pain in the ass to deal with,” says Keith Anderson, the Vice President of Marketing for Ibex, one of the leading wool outdoor clothing companies today. “Synthetic insulations came around and they were soft, warm, comfy and machine washable and everyone looked at them like a god-send.”

All that changed about 15 years ago when the textile industry decided to start using a particular type of merino wool that has much finer fibre and is therefore softer, less itchy and feels much softer next to your skin. With merino wool the industry also figured out how to prevent wool from bunching up in a washing machine and was able to make thinner and lighter fabrics.

Wool fibre – the key to winter warmth.
Wool fibre © Icebreaker

“We believe Merino is the best fibre in the world,” says Rob Achten, Creative Director and Vice President of Product for Icebreaker.

Not everyone is a fan however. “I wear a Merino liner sock with a thicker wool sock of some kind most of the winter in my mountain boots,” says the climber Will Gadd. “But I don't like wool on the rest of my body — it doesn't seem to dry quickly enough relative to synthetics. A lot of the modern Merino wool combinations also seem to rely so heavily on fabric additives of one kind or another that they might as well be synthetic.”

In terms of product, socks and base layers are still the staple of wool products for brands like Icebreaker, Ibex and SmartWool, but they're also coming up with new ways to harness the power of the material.

In some water and wind resistant synthetic shells like the Stealth Hood from Icebreaker or the Puget Jacket from Ibex, wool is used as the lining because it’s soft against the skin, provides an important added layer of warmth and helps pull moisture away from your skin.

Wool is also frequently being used as insulation in puffy jackets, like the Wool Aire Hoody from Ibex, and the PhD Smartloft Full Zip from SmartWool. The advantage is that wool is less puffy but still provides an enormous amount of warmth.

“We’re always looking for new ways to push the limits of the wool technology and make the applications more exciting,” Anderson says. “Wool is back as one of the top choices for the outdoor community and we want to keep it that way.”

Jakob Schiller is based in New Mexico and writes about photography and gear for WIRED magazine and skiing for Powder Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jakobschiller

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