The New Wool Order

Long overshadowed by poly-based pile, a more athlete-friendly, itch-free wool is back-and everywhere

Feb 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Get fleeced: Icebreaker's Pocket Hat and Ibex's Neve Jacket

TODAY'S TECHNICAL-WOOL makers must sympathize with Nicolaus Copernicus. Just as the 16th-century astronomer fought the religious premise that the sun revolved around the earth, apparel designers battle the age-old belief that wool is itchy. Copernicus, of course, prevailed. And scratch-free wool? Pull on some next-generation sheep's clothing and we bet you'll decide that it's as innovative and technically sophisticated as any sleek polypro and pile hanging in your closet. The new stuff is not only remarkably soft, but remains as durable, warm, and breathable as it's always been. It's also—hallelujah!—machine washable. How is this miracle possible? Makers of performance-wool clothing rely on one or two strategies to de-prickle their pants, tops, and pullovers. First, several use ultra-fine fleece from New Zealand's merino sheep, which yield fibers so fine—each is less than a third the diameter of a human hair—that the barbs simply can't jab skin. The mountain-dwelling Kiwi ruminants endure both searing summers and snowy winters, an evolutionary testament to merino's natural temperature-regulating qualities. The second anti-itch approach involves combining wool with cozy and inviting polyester or mesh linings and bonding it to wind-blocking laminates, tough nylon outer layers, and stretchy spandex.

The upshot is that you can now outfit yourself in new wool from head to toe, and our top picks cover you from base layer to bikewear. You'll spend about 30 percent more for these garments than for their synthetic competitors, since wrestling animal fibers into fabric takes some doing. But the payoff comes in tough, comfortable threads that only leave you itching for more time outside.

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