My love affair with Merino Wool
(living document, updated regularly)
Most of the Merino Wool comes from the New Zealand and Australia, from sheep that are used to dealing with harsh windy winter climates and sweltering heat in their summer seasons. It’s unique properties give it the ability to regulating body temperature, especially when worn against the skin. The wool provides some warmth, without overheating the wearer. It draws moisture (sweat) away from the skin, a phenomenon known as wicking. The fabric is slightly moisture repellent making it feel like it is not wet. It can absorb up to 1/3 of its weight, however unlike other fabrics such as cotton – it retains warmth even when wet helping wearers avoid hypothermia after harsh weather events or workouts. It has basic antibacterial properties thanks to naturally occurring lanolin.
It keeps you warm in the cold temperatures, is lightweight, and most importantly doesn’t smell. I’ve managed to wear a single piece of Merino Wool for 16 days straight before having to swap it out due to an unfortunate incident involving blood. Lucky for me, the washing process removed any trace of it and left no staining. Win.
Over the past few years this material has exploded in popularity thanks to the word being passed back and forth between people on the road, and who regularly exert themselves in strange climate conditions. Companies around the world are taking advantage of this wonderful material and for good reason – it’s the best thing to put against your skin.
I can’t list all the manufacturer’s using this material, however there are a few companies that stand out in my mind for specializing in its production – Ibex – a well known sports/activewear company makes products for base layers for outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing and snowboarding, make a cycling short that is made of merino wool. I’ve yet to try it, but would entertain any offers from the company to test it out for a thorough review. Icebreaker, based out of New Zealand puts out a new clothing line twice a year, with a variety of purposes ranging from base layer to heavy knit sweatshirts with a unique fashion flair and different sets of designs. Smartwool, a similar clothing company to Icebreaker competes with a unique set of clothing to look fashionable at any state of the year. Our little Canadian gem, Mountain Equipment Co-Op (MEC) produces well manufactured garments for base layer insulation which focuses on functionality, not form. Finally – DeFeet, a sports outfitting company produces insulating socks that are wearable year round with the Merino Wool fabric.
I’m going to focus on the products that I own, and speak briefly on each giving a brief review of each of the types of their clothing that I wear. Each manufacturer has different standards in construction and care, not to mention quality of materials used. Those who have been a follower of this website and who have been viewing the photos section regularly will be quite familiar with the items. Downside to this is you get to take a peak at my blatant disregard for facial hair upkeep. Are these items suitable for long distance cycling? Read on…
Icebreaker Bodyfit 200 Thunder – I must have worn this shirt over 250 times over its lifetime, and regular readers should most certainly recognize this shirt. I ate with it on, slept with it on, wore it underneath other shirts, or wore it alone. My favorite piece of Merino clothing, it unfortunately disintegrated after repeated use. One day there was a small hole in the back, and it seemed that the rest of the fabric just let go shortly thereafter. It’s unwearable at this stage, however here’s the final photo. This shirt was great – It was a 200gm/2 material that while a bit heavier than some other shirts, still felt good to wear in the summer, and absolutely wonderful in colder months. It form fit my body which I found typical to most Icebreaker clothes, and did a great job at regulating temperature and wicking moisture from my body. If I could find another shirt like this, I’d jump in a second to buy it as I’m in love with the colour. Would Buy Again. Update – 2011-05 – I found a replacement, life is good
Icebreaker GT 180 Grey
A long sleeve shirt shirt, this Grey and Green shirt contains some unique features, thumb loops at the end of the sleeves, and mesh where the armpits are for regulation of heat. Icebreaker guarantees it will keep you cool in active sporting environments, and while I was leery at first, I’m now a believer. I regularly wear this shirt underneath other layers, or alone with the sleeves rolled up on hot sunny days, and rolled down during chilly mornings. It’s not as strong as the 200mg shirt, and many micro holes have developed in the span of 150 wearings. Fabric is thinning in areas where it has been mended. Would re buy. Is a bit looser than the 200mg shirt, and doesn’t entirely hug the body. It’s quite easy to roll up the sleeves on this model. Unfortunately they no longer sell this model, but sell a similar vented GT model in the 200 series. Would Buy Again.
Icebreaker Atlas Tech-T 150 Red – A new addition, sent to me by Icebreaker, is suitable for warm spring or summer days, and fits loosely on the body. It’s thin, and doesn’t feel like it would put up with repeat usage typical to the 200mg blue shirt, However I will re-update this posting when the shirt DOES burn out. Maybe it is the material but I feel more wet when perspiring with this shirt. Wouldn’t Buy Again.
Icebreaker Bike Lite Mini Socks – The socks are wonderful, letting me know which foot to put in what, and can be worn for 7 days without serious stinking or the fabric toughening up. While they don’t go much higher than the ankle, these would be suitable for those performing outdoor summer sports and cycling. They aren’t as strong as one would like, as one day when I was putting them on after taking a shower I managed to tear a hole in the side of them. Winter, one may want to look elsewhere like the Woolie Boolie (Below). Wouldn’t Buy Again.
DeFeet Woolie Boolie Socks – These socks are the kings of foot protection. While heavy at (85 gram) these thick socks form to the feet, don’t bring in smells (12 days is my record) and do a wonderful job at keeping the feet dry during strenuous exercise. I could use these 4 seasons, in any sort of situation thanks to the mixture of 60% Australian merino wool, 30% nylon, and 10% Lycra. In a year and a half of wearing the same pair, I’ve yet to pop a hole in the material in any part of the sock – they last!) – I lose them before I have to replace them from wear. Would Buy Again.
Icebreaker Quantum Zip 260 GT Grey – A wonderful looking sweater from Icebreaker, it contains the similar features such as thumb-loops and venting like its 180g counterpart. It includes a zipper, however I found that the neck is too small, and it chokes me when its zipped all the way up, limiting my abilities to use this product in many situations. It looks great, feels great, and keeps me warm, typically over top of another base layer. Although the armpit areas are vented like the other thinner GT series I couldn’t see myself using this as a regular daily garment while cycling whatsoever, except in the coldest of freezing months. Bonus is that it comes with reflective piping on the zippers for night cycling. Would buy again strictly for the fit and quality
Smartwool Adventurer Socks – These would be a great set of socks if they weren’t so thick and didn’t go all the way up to halfway up the shin. They are strong, durable, and can be worn for up to 5-6 days before starting to get really smelly. They also do really well in the dryer as well, whereas most Merino Wool will shrink and therefore lose its wonderful properties. These are best left for winter sports and hiking. Would not buy again.
MEC T-shirt – MEC produces a line of merino products, the t shirt has a similar fabric weight to the Icebreaker 150 Atlas Red, yet feels a bit cheaply made. Seams are not as precise, and threads stick out in areas. The cost difference is half the price of an Icebreaker, so you certainly get what you pay off. Fits loosely on the body and wouldn’t’ work well as a base layer in my opinion. It’s a great value and compares to the Icebreaker 150 Atlas. Would Buy Again.
MEC Sweater (no longer sold)- A heavy, cumbersome sweater to be only used in the winter months it contains a zipper for faster heat regulation. The sleeves are far too long on this product and I have to roll them up, where as the Icebreaker units are just right. However each body is different. Again, manufacturing quality is not near the Icebreaker standards, and doesn’t feel as strong as its competition. It’s worked well as another layer in cold months, but not suitable for many outdoor summer activities. Eventually the fabric wears thin and holes will appear on the sleeves. Not suitable for cycling. Would Not Buy Again.
As you can see so far, Merino works well for cycling, but it is mixed whether it works in all situations. One must be sure to find the proper size and fit for their application to avoid from overheating or prematurely disintegrating the material. All that being said, I will continue to wear Merino solely while cycling as it looks great, feels great, and provides proper temperature regulation that I require. Further Merino to be updated as acquired.