OUTDOORS

What Is Merino Wool: a Deeper Look in the Warm Layer

Merino sheep's wool
Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

When you’ve shopped for outdoor clothing in base layer department I bet you’ve seen a material that comes up time and time again, and that is wool, especially merino wool. So, what is merino wool? Is it any good? Is it worth its price?

Let’s start by saying a thing or two about sheep, the merino sheep in particular.

The Merino is one of the oldest breeds in the world and has evolved to endure severe environments with the aid of its super protective wool layer. This layer is not only thick but also light, enabling them to live through freezing climates and also the hot sun. This sheep is met in specific areas around the world, the high mountains of Europe, New Zeeland and in the plains of Australia.

Closeup of merino wool

Enough about sheep, let’s talk about wool. This is an amazing fabric:  warm, breathable and, most of all, durable. No wonder that it has been used for centuries: from the primeval man, using the skins of wool to cover himself – through civilizations that discerned wool sheep from food sheep, selective breeding for superior fleece, the popularity during the Middle Ages to the day that this amazing fabric left from the home of people to workshops and later factories.

Merino wool, in particular, offers much more. It is known for its versatility and it’s used in everyday clothing, from hypoallergenic baby clothes to suits and active gear. It keeps you warm and also cool, it’s soft and stretchy, breathable, doesn’t hold moisture and therefore odor, it’s all natural, renewable, biodegradable and a little bit fireproof.

And now let’s go further with the details and benefits of this great fabric.

Benefits of merino wool

Warmth

As you pretty much guessed that’s the main use of this fiber and wool is perfect because of the dead air barrier that acts as a natural insulator providing a significant buffer in the face of cold.

Women merino base layer

Not only that, but it’s reliable even in cold and rainy weather, protecting the wearer from the outside humidity while also keeping him warm. Amazing.

This is also the reason why some countries make wool part of their military uniform fabric.  Being in the outdoor for a long time, not knowing how the weather will develop, from night to day, season to season, they needed something to withstand it all.

Breathability

This is one of the most important factors that will make you choose this fiber. Because of this ability to transport moisture from your skin, by absorbing it to the drier environment, you do not have to layer up as much as usual, like when wearing synthetic fibers.

Also, because of this, the wool seems impervious to rot and mold, making it a long term usage fabric.

Cooling

I know, this seems somewhat contrary, but because of the fabrics ability to breathe, the moisture from your skin surface is absorbed then released while cooling the air at the skin level.  Consequently, the warmer you get, the effect of this wonderful textile will also go up by increasing the surface that expels the heat away from your body during intense activities.

Cooling merino shirt

So, you see, one garment can be used for longer periods of time and weather, from chilly nights to hot day making merino wool one of a kind material, flexible and most of all reliable.

Odorless

First, it has to be said that it won’t dodge a week of hiking without a shower, but you’ll smell less like sweat while doing intense exercise or some heavy activities for extended periods of time.

That is because, unlike synthetics, the epic propriety mentioned above keeps odor in check simply by letting your skin breathe. This leads to the process of bacterial reproduction from your skin level to decline significantly, making the reason for the unpleasant smell to simply not building up to the point of bothering you or others around you. You’re welcome!

When the moisture vapors turn to sweat the wool simply transports the liquids mechanically, like synthetics, but will still have its capability of retaining heat making it a great choice over cotton or synthetic.

Merino sheep on grassland

By the way, you can also hang your wool garments outside to ventilate and all that smell from the week of hiking will fade away. This makes the clothes containing wool not needing so frequent washing thus prolonging the life of the item.

Soft

Unlike other types of wool fabric renowned for being itchy, merino fibers, when put under a microscope are of a smaller diameter. Moreover, in combination with its flexibility, it bends easily in contact with the skin making it seem softer, therefore, more appreciated than other types of wool.

Now there can be no more complaints while using wool. Even garments made 100% of wool aren’t itchy, so your adventure will become much more comfortable and enjoyable. That itch will not be a distraction any longer.

It can be easily worn by children if you find yourself in need for a special equipment. Therefore the trip will go a lot smoother for you and also your kids.

Super flexible

The special fibers also increase the wool’s elastic capabilities. The fibers of this material behave like tiny springs, being more stretchy than restraining like other types of wool. It also means no wrinkles, retaining its shape and lasting for a longer period of time.

Merino wool yarn

This makes the clothing that incorporates Merino wool to fit on the shape of the body, increasing the performance of the garment and also the comfort of its wearer, making it ideal for outdoor activities such as climbing, skiing or snowboarding. And, while being close to your skin, you will find out exactly why you chose to incorporate merino wool in your outdoor gear.

Super light

We have the example of the merino sheep that seems to keep it’s mobility in the mountainsides despite the size of the wool. Distinct to other heavier fabrics, this wool seems to be a lot lighter, making very easy to stack up on items made of the fabric.

This is particularly important because you won’t need so many layers of clothes to take with you while hiking or hunting. You will be extra light, so moving around through the day will be a lot easier, just like those sheep on the heights of the mountains.

Quick drying

In general, the thickness of the fabric directly correlates with the necessary time for getting dry. But this wool is not like any other wool and it seems to get dry as fast as any other fabrics made for performance, of the same weight.

Quick drying baselayer

So if find yourself in rainy conditions, find a shelter, build a fire and your gear will be ready and dry in no time. Hang it on a stick near the fire or just keep wearing it yourself and you will definitely notice how fast it can dry.

Hypoallergenic

Another great feature of this fabric. Being naturally hypoallergenic makes this fiber ideal for clothes destined to children or those with sensitive skins. It will also not start an allergenic reaction, even more will put in check already existing ailments.

There is research that suggests merino wool shows antibacterial properties. It is in direct correlation with its breathability effect. I told you that is the most important feature of this natural fabric.

There is more. Because it doesn’t attract dust and dirt, people with allergies to housemites or simply dust are starting to want wool more and more in their bed sheets and mattress covers, blankets and pillows.

Fire resistant

Yet another marvelous trait of this wool is the fact it is fire resistant. So if you find yourself around a campfire and some sparks drop on you, it won’t affect the garment, in contrast to the synthetic one that can catch fire with as little as a spark. The only way you can ignite wool is to put it in direct contact with fire and at some point, it will start to burn.

Wool will resist fire

Related to this, is the fact that once on fire, the fabric won’t stick to your skin, in case you find yourself fully in the camp fire.  So the wool is not only fire resistant but also fire retardant.

Hard-wearing

And all of the above arouse another feature. Being able to resist fire, in a moderate to a high degree, being flexible and overall a strong fiber,the merino wool becomes hard-wearing making it an important textile to take into consideration while shopping for outdoor gear.

Being on the field and encountering different environments the textile will prove itself to be strong against vegetation and terrain scratches.

Sunlight protection

Merino wool offers a better protection against UV rays than cotton or synthetics, so when you are outdoors you will be better protected against sun’s harmful rays.Usually, most products made of wool offer a UPF of 30+, and some even going as high as 50.

Merino wool baselayer

Let’s say you find yourself hiking in New Zealand’s mountains, which are known for getting high amounts of UV, above average.Wearing this wool proves to be a very good choice for outdoor gear. It precisely evolved on these mountains and adapted to this harsh and unsteady environment.

Machine washable

Yes, that is right. A wool that is machine washable, just like any other material, cotton or synthetic. It can be tumble dried without shrinking. Not only that, but it dries very fast on a line or a chair, and you do not need to iron it afterward. This makes it the ideal garment material to take with you while traveling.

Antistatic

Because of the wool’s ability to withhold moisture, it also becomes static resistance. The fibers absorb the moisture and this phenomenon hinders  the accumulation of static electricity, and the sparks associated with it don’t manifest. This is an important feature for safety areas where it is necessary to prevent sparks, during repairs in gas leakage areas or electrical panels.

Natural

The merino wool comes from sheep, so it is a totally natural product. Simply as that. The sheep’s wool it’s trimmed twice a year, and without being treated or changed in any way it goes straight to your coat, cap or socks.

Natural merino wool

So if you want to reduce environmental footprint, definitely opt for garments made of merino wool, as it is also biodegradable, enriching the soil with nitrogen as it decomposes. You will also help the farmers in those remote areas. This becomes a win-win-win situation, for you, the planet and the farmers.

Sustainable

Because it comes from sheep that grow this fleece naturally year round, it becomes a sustainable and renewable fiber, without having an impact on the terrain that these sheep are grown.

Stylish

Unlike fleece or other low-quality wool, merino wool is actually used by famous fashion designers, such as Armani or Hugo Boss. Because of the high quality of this fiber, it is often used in material that dresses famous people, from the world of sports to that of the red carpet.

That means it is ideal for those travelers and outdoor adventurers who prefer fashionable attires. Not only this, but the wool can be dyed without the fear of leaking to your skin or other clothes and more you will find it in a wide range of colors.

Versatile

Up to this point, you have made your idea about this material. It is used in the outdoor gear and active wear, Italian suits and red carpet dresses, baby clothes and top-quality jumpers. It is great for accessories such as gloves, scarves, hats, and socks.

White wool on carpet

Because you can get a very thin layer using this type of wool, it is also used for knitting items that can be placed underneath jackets, like short-sleeved t-shirt that proves to be great for day hikes, to thick-knit jumpers or cardigans to wear over other clothes. As you see we can go on and on about the versatility of this fiber.

Even merino wool socks and underwear are a great choice for the outdoor adventurer providing noticeable benefits.

That includes comfort and moisture wicking proprieties that lead to no rubbing, odorless and moisture expelling proprieties making it a great choice for smelly backpackers, hunters, and hikers.

We have to add another quality of this textile: silence. Yes, it is very silent. Why is that important? Maybe not for everybody, but for hunters out there this is something of great importance.

Check it before you get it

Don’t forget, when you buy merino products, look for the percentage of the wool on the label as it will guarantee all the benefits listed above. Even if the products containing merino tend to draw out more money from your pockets than synthetics or cotton, it worth its price. Also, the benefits will really outweigh the costs. Even if 100% merino is best in people’s opinion, there are also a lot of blends, usually to reduce cost and make a product accessible but still performing well.

Merino baselayer shirt

If, let’s say you think that it is still out of your budget for this winter active gear there is another solution. Go to your nearest store of fabrics, haberdashery or major wool stockist and purchase balls of merino wool and knit yourself or those close to you some gloves and hats, even jumpers or cardigans to wear over your attire.

In Conclusion

We have layered out the major propertiesand features of this incredible material. If you haven’t already invested in some merino wool products hope this article convinced you to give it a go. You have nothing to lose. If you think there are more to say about merino wool, please feel free to use the comment section and let us know your opinion, maybe your experiences with it and why not, suggestions of places to get it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

  • Sam Mitchell

    I recently bought a few products made of this type of wool. It feels wonderful and looks like high quality. I heard some claims that it doesn’t get odor or need to be ironed for a period longer than 2 months. I think it’s very unlikely. What are your experiences? I’m going to test it and I’ll let you know.

    • Dennis Owens

      Merino is one of the more expensive wool types and it has this material matrix that makes it less susceptible to odor. It is definitely worth investing in a clothing article made from this material.

  • James Phillips

    It’s interesting how a natural material can be so perfect in many ways. Merino wool beats a large number of synthetic materials and its only designer is nature (or sheep?). I know that there are some materials that can be the same in quality and even more durable, but no matter what, my first pick would be merino wool.

    • Dennis Owens

      I agree with everything you said, James. The only thing that I don’t like about the Merino wool is how expensive it is. But its cost pays for the material itself thanks to its proven durability and how it keeps your body warm for an extended period without overheating.

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