There are a lot of claims about merino, particularly around its anti-stink properties. Companies like Icebreaker are constantly claiming that you can wear their woolies day after day and they won't smell.
A few weeks ago, because it was a rainy week and we weren't out riding our mountain bikes every free second, we had some time to dream up a little experiment: to see if the anti-stink claims were true. We recruited a subject for our experiment, Dana Allen, 31, writer, photographer and grad student at the University of Vermont's College of Plant and Soil Sciences, studying ecological landscape design. We asked Dana to wear an Icebreaker Men's Tech Tee Lite for two weeks, and to journal about how the shirt smelled. We recommended that maybe the second week of the test he should make sure that his finacée was out of town.
Dana, always up for a challenge, agreed with caveats. He was game, but said that if he developed any weird rashes, or if his finacée kicked him out of the house until the test was over he was gonna have to bail. Word.
Here's Dana's play by play report on being Outside's lab rat.
Day 1: Sweet. I get my shirt after a long, sweaty bike ride. I put my shirt on. So much for trying to keep it sort of clean from the start.
Day 2: Working on the Master’s project—a 3,000-gallon filter full of stagnant water from a cheese factory wastewater lagoon. Trying really hard to not splash myself with some of the smelliest water I’ve ever experienced. Shirt smells fine so far.
Day 3: House chores and goofing off. A mellow road bike ride followed by a BBQ. No shower. It’s not like I’m trying to put this shirt to the test, but it’s definitely getting tested.
Day 4: Some house time followed by a muddy mountain bike ride. Though I didn’t wear the shirt on the ride, I put it on right after. From the trail, we decide to check out the new pump track and dirt jump park. An hour and a half of pump track madness later, I’m still rocking wool. Like a boss.
Day 5: More mountain biking, covered in mud, followed by no shower during taco-time lunch, a couple of hours of pump track, and dinner with the in-laws. I smell kind of ripe. The shirt doesn’t really have a smell.
Day 6: Quick pedal up the hill from my house to meet with my cranky departmental accountant, who informs me that the DOS-based accounting software I’m supposed to know how to use "really isn’t that hard." Right. Then back down to the house to load bikes and do some driveway bike maintenance, trying not to get grease all over me. On the ride I crash, cutting my face pretty good. I put the shirt on after the ride, careful not to get too much blood on it. We eat creamees, then drink beer. The shirt now smells a little like arnica and BioFreeze that I’m using for my whiplashed neck.
Day 7: Raining cats and dogs. The shirt and I will spend most of the day digging up wetland plants in the rain. We’re really getting close, Mr. Woolie and me.
Day 8: Dug up a whole bunch of burr reed from a local marina for a constructed wetland. Almost got attacked by a giant man-eating large-mouth bass, or possibly Champ. While pulling out some of the plants, I nearly fell ass over teakettle into the water. The two layers I was wearing underneath my raincoat got a bit clammy, but the shirt dried out with body heat alone during the drive back home.
Day 9: Constructed wetland with 80 pounds of peat moss, 80 pounds of charcoal, and a whole bunch of wetland reeds. I sweat buckets hauling peat moss and charcoal up and down an eight-foot ladder, covering myself in peat and charcoal dust in the process. My Serbian advisor, Dr. Drizo, remarked that my shirt looked quite nice. "Icebreaker, those are nice!" When I told her about my little test, she laughed at me. I couldn't convince her to do a quick smell test (so much for professionalism). My own personal smell test indicates that this shirt smells less than expected. I can't even really smell anything at all. And the initial minor scratchiness of the fabric has pretty much disappeared.
Day 10: Quick pit-stink check this morning reveals good results—no noticeable stank. Fiancée is in Arizona however so no independent verification available. Actually manage to shower post bike ride. Then it's off to decorations for a fundraiser. Some sweaty indoor Christmas light hanging follows. Sadly, its a costume event so the wool is put aside in favor of polyester.
Day 11: Wake up mildly hungover. Some remnants of last night’s gyro on the shirt. Whatever. Lamb smells good. My friend Spencer and I climb into a truck to begin an 1,100-mile journey through Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Maine to retrieve a free sailboat. Saturday night we stop at his childhood home in Brooklyn. Upon arrival we scare away a Nora Jones stalker (she lives next door). We drink copious amounts of pickle-backs, bourbon chased with spicy pickle brine. Midnight finds us on our way to a party in Redhook where we shotgun beers in a stranger's tub, then start a dance party with an iPhone while the rest of the "party" watches basketball. I walk home and fall asleep in my clothes.
Day 12: The 6:45 a.m. wakeup call is not appreciated. We eat eggs, then pile into the truck to drive to load the boat in Jersey. Mild sweating results. Our Slovakian host and boat donor George treats us to coffee while telling us about the first time he skied in Italy: "I come from Communist country, the food is shit. In Italy, I don't even care about skiing, I just look forward to breakfast, lunch, and dinner!" We then jump in truck, drive to Maine at a sedate 55 mph, then turn around and drive directly back to Boston, arriving at 11 p.m. No shower. I manage to get my shirt off before bed this time.
Day 13: Leisurely morning in Boston. We head to Legal Seafood, then go to aquarium to touch sharks. Then it's back in the truck for another drive to Vermont and home. Fiancée does a quick sniff test—no real odor. At this point the shirt has the remnants of several meals and snacks on it, as well as a ton of dog hair. It's become like a second skin, but surprisingly not a smelly one. Should I start riding bikes in it? Probably.
Day 14: Finally, the fiancée smell test: "Well, it does have an odor to it, but it just smells like Dana. And not stinky Dana, which I know all too well, just regular Dana who has showered in the not-so-distant past."
Verdict: I’d like to say that this is the first time I've ever worn a shirt for two weeks. But that's not even remotely true.
In college I worked leading teenagers around Europe. My first trip was a month-long excursion on bikes from Paris to Nice. I had one shirt that I rode in every day. So for about 10 days straight in 2003, I wore that shirt in the stifling heat, heat from the heat wave that killed Parisians. The shirt smelled so bad that when I would lead the group through towns, the kids would refuse to ride closely behind me. It stood up on its own. It was disgusting.
This Icebreaker shirt, on the other hand, is not disgusting. Granted, I've worn it pretty casually for two weeks, not spending six-seven hours in the saddle, sweating profusely. But it has seen its share of activity and more than its share of my unwashed armpits. It's still soft, which I can't usually say for synthetic shirts after a couple of weeks. And it smells nowhere near as bad as the shirt I wore every day for two weeks this past winter while living in an RV in British Columbia and skiing every day.
At first, I was a touch put off by the texture of the wool—I'm used to wearing organic cotton t-shirts or faux-vintage rags, the ones that are probably washed in the tears of baby seals to make them super soft. The wool was a bit on the crinkly side, but not itchy like that sweater you remember from childhood. And I was surprised to note that that feeling all but disappeared after a couple of days. Apparently, you're supposed to wash wool shirts to remove that initial starchy feel, but I just ripped the tags off.
Also, this shirt looks good. I don't look like I'm out to crush skulls in some sort of Amazonian Death Race wearing a tiny, ultralight hydration pack and those creepy five-finger shoes. I look like I'm about to go swill some beer with some friends at the bar, or maybe ride some flowy singletrack. It drapes well and has a nice length to it. Would I do this again? Yes.
I rode bikes with Dana today. The test is over, but he was still wearing the shirt pre- and post-ride, and he hadn't gotten around to washing it yet. Icebreaker Men's Tech Tee Lite available now, $75, us.icebreaker.com.