Wrong on wool

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As a kid I discovered wool clothes were super-scratchy (and was actually diagnosed with allergy to wool, but more recent tests don't seem to bear this out). So, when Eu-Jin Goh told me that I should try some of the new wool athletic gear (Smartwool, Ibex, etc.) I was pretty skeptical. But then I read this Backpacking Light article comparing wool and synthetics which reports that wool has comparable performance to the best synthetics and started thinking maybe I should give wool another try. A month or so ago, I ordered a Smartwool NTS top (microweight) and it really is pretty good. I've since ordered two more of the NTS tops in lightweight.

Traditionally, people have three main complaints about wool: comfort (it's scratchy), care (you can't machine wash it), and price. Modern athletic wool garments address two of these issues. The main advancement in the comfort front is the use of Merino wool. Merino has a much finer fiber than ordinary wool, and (in general) the finer the fiber the softer the fabric you make out of it. In addition, the new Merino yarns are much thinner, which also makes for a much softer fabric. My Smartwool tops still aren't quite as soft and smooth as a comparable synthetic such as Capilene or typical Coolmax/Lycra blends, but they're far less scratchy than I remember wool being. This doesn't mean not scratchy at all (especially before the initial wash), but it's comfortable enough for everyday wear, and the compensation is that there's rather less of the feeling that you're wearing a Tyvek envelope that you tend to get with synthetic fabrics. [The above relies heavily on the Backpacking Light article, which is behind a paywall, albeit one worth shelling out for if you are interested in this sort of thing.]

The other major advance is washability. As everyone knows, machine washing wool garments ruins them. The problem here is that the fabric felts (actually, Wikipedia claims that they've been fulled, but Mrs. G says that everyone just says "felted"). Basically, what happens is that wool (like all hair) has a scaly external structure and the heat and the agitation causes the scales to interlock, so you just get a single shrunken mass. In the 1970s (thanks, Wikipedia!), however, superwash wool was introduced: superwash has been treated either to remove the scales or by coating them with a polymer that prevents the interlocking. In either case superwash wool is wool you can wash in your washing machine. You can also tumble dry it if you're moderately careful; Smartwool recommends the low setting but I've used my dryer's permanent press setting with no sign of real shrinkage after the first washing (warning: there is some built-in shrinkge the first time so pay attention when you buy). This is mostly as convenient as most of my synthetics, and better than my polypropylene SportHill gear, which I've actually damaged in the dryer.

The price issue, however, remains. For comparison, the GoLite BL-1 lists for $42. The comparable Smartwool NTS is $60. I've also seen complaints that wool doesn't hold up to extended wear as well as the synthetics do, which makes the price issue more serious. Regardless, I'm now considering wool a serious option; I've tried it for a few short runs, but I'll report back after my next serious test, either a long run or a extended backpacking trip.

Acknowledgement: This post relies heavily on discussions with resident wool expert Mrs. Guesswork.


You might also like trying Icebreaker.com - I first acquired their stuff while in vacation in NZ, about 6 months before it showed up in most good outdoors stores in San Diego. The everyday stuff is probably 40% of our wardrobe currently and has held up quite well with reasonable care (machine wash, line dry).

I've found two major benefits: I find it more comfortable to wear for long periods of time (since I live on the east coast now surviving hot humid days is concern outside of hiking) and it doesn't get smelly anywhere near as quickly, which means the vast majority of our backpacking gear is now wool and my wife can wear her wool tops 3-4 times between washes except at the height of summer.

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