Whether it’s in the form of a lightweight baselayer or stylish pea coat, you really can’t go wrong with wool. It has been around for centuries—millennia, even—yet it continues to outperform many of today’s high-tech synthetics.
But before we get into why wool is so amazing, banish from your mind the image of scratchy sweaters that exude the essence wet sheep upon first contact with snow or drizzle. That’s not the kind of wool we’re talking about here. We’re concerned with merino wool—also known as nature’s miracle fiber—but lambswool and high-quality wool blends are worth a mention, too.
What makes the merino wool fiber so miraculous? For one, the feel—it’s soft, smooth, and it doesn’t itch. Many a rash-prone skeptic has been unable to distinguish merino wool from acrylic in terms of next-to-skin feel. This is because the fibers are so fine, around half the thickness of traditional wool fibers. The microscopic scales on a merino fiber are in turn much smaller than those on a traditional wool fiber, thus they are far less irritating to the nerve endings on the surface of your skin. (Diagram courtesy of Icebreaker)
Merino is also inherently antibacterial. It’s capable of keeping funky odors at bay much longer than synthetic fibers can; you’ll notice that synthetic clothing will smell far worse than a merino piece after multiple uses. There are a number of complicated reasons for this, among them the fact that merino is good at keeping your skin drier, so odoriferous bacteria don’t have a great environment in which to grow. There are a number of chemical properties of wool that also cut back on bacterial growth. Finally, the rough surface of a wool fiber doesn’t hold a bacteria-attracting charge the way a smooth synthetic fiber does.
Wooly Merinos show up in town for their summer haircuts. (Photo courtesy of SmartWool)