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 of 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.
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.
The temperature-regulating properties of merino wool are impressive, too. The Merino sheep is one of the world’s most ancient breeds; it’s well-adapted to both winters on frigid alpine slopes and long, hot summers in the lowlands. It would follow that it works for you in all seasons, too, keeping you comfortable through a wide range of temperatures.
The warmth of wool is well known; you can thank the superior ability of wool fabric to trap air for that. But you might be surprised to learn that merino clothing is awesome for hot weather as well. This is because merino fabric is highly breathable, so the water vapor you generate as you start to heat up is able to pass through both the fabric as well as individual fibers, meaning you keep cool more efficiently. The wool absorbs sweat resting on the surface of your skin and eventually evaporates without leaving a clammy feeling. Look for superfine merino knits or new blends like Icebreaker’s merino/Tencel fabric, designed just for hot weather.
To top it off, merino wool is anti-wrinkle, anti-static, stain-resistant, quick-drying, flameproof, durable, biodegradable, and renewable. What’s not to love?
Merino’s cousin, lambswool, is also soft, insulating, and odor-resistant, and it’s the most hypoallergenic of all wools. It’s more delicate than merino, however, so it’s best used in stylish sweaters, gloves, and hats. Regular sheep’s wool is also super warm, but since it’s coarser and heavier than merino or lambswool, it’s ideally used in pieces that don’t come in contact with skin, like jackets, parkas, pea coats, and trench coats. A wool-blend fabric retains the insulating power and substantial feel of wool, but adds a smooth, quick-drying fiber such as polyester or nylon to the mix.
Now that that’s out of the way, here, from head to toe, are the ways you can enjoy wearing wool.
There are a surprising number of merino underwear or merino bra options out there to cover up in comfort and style. The neatest thing about merino underwear is its versatility. Wool undies and bras are ideal for skinning up a mountain while backcountry skiing, since they’ll keep you warm even if you sweat or take a big digger in the powder. You can also bust them out in hot weather, and count on them to stay drier and resist funky odors. Merino wool skivvies are also your best friend for travel and backpacking. There’s a reason why I have over ten pairs in my drawer at home! I also give my aunt, mom and sister a pair every Christmas—it’s a foolproof gift.
Lightweight, midweight, or heavyweight—merino layers come in all flavors. Keep in mind that these baselayers aren’t just great for skiing; they also make incredible camping PJs and cozy winter leggings when worn under jeans or with skirts and boots. Some styles are also dressy enough to be worn out to dinner. Again, the versatility of these pieces ensures they won’t stay in your closet for long.
It should come as no surprise that merino wool makes for awesome socks! Whether you hike, run, ski, or snowboard, or could simply use some casual socks that hold their shape, last longer, and are super comfortable, all while fighting foot funk, merino wool socks are the best choice. They’re also great for stuffing into stockings hung on a mantel. I use them for skiing, hiking, biking, and everyday wear.
A lightweight merino wool beanie is the perfect thing to wear under a ski, bike, or climb helmet in cold weather. It won’t fry your brain, it’s thin enough to not interfere with your helmet’s fit, and its wearability doesn’t end when you leave the mountain. There are plenty of heavier-weight merino beanies, chunky-knit merino pom hats, and fashion-focused wool hats and caps out there, too. You should also consider a merino balaclava or neck gaiter for keeping wind chill at bay. The wool keeps you warm even if it becomes wet from sweat buildup or the water vapor you exhale when breathing. Thin merino gloves are also perfectly suited to running or ski touring.
Wool scarves come in a variety of styles. Many feature blends of wool with supremely soft, snuggly fibers such as acrylic, angora, nylon or mohair. They’re not only warm and cozy, but they give an instant boost of color and depth to even the plainest outfits.
A casual merino top is functionally ubiquitous; you can wear it anywhere for everyday comfort, but it won’t let you down on the rock or the trail. A merino bike jersey or workout top is sure to bring you delight during your active pursuits. The versatility of a merino top makes it a worthy investment for any active female.
A soft, classy merino or lambswool sweater is a guaranteed win during winter weather. Not only are there a wide variety of stylish options, but the wool will rarely need to be washed because it resists odor so well. The soft, luxurious feel of the merino fabric lends itself perfectly to snuggling up fireside with a good book or hitting a fancy wine bar on a Friday night. I recommend investing in a style with a classic silhouette and versatile color scheme so you can enjoy it for years to come.
Wool jackets are available in both technical forms and more fashion-forward styles. Many brands are also producing jackets and vests filled with merino fibers, similar to down insulation. The bonus here is that it provides incredible warmth and it will also keep you warm when wet. These wool-insulated jackets are awesome for high-intensity activities in cold weather because they breathe so well. The look of wool casual jackets ranges from sleek to modern to traditional, providing years of timeless style and protection from the elements.
One of the most overlooked categories on Backcountry.com, merino dresses are comfy, good-looking, and span the seasons. In the summer, they can be dressed up with some cute sandals and a necklace or dressed down with flip-flops for a walk on the beach. And in the colder months, they’re a natural with boots and a colorful scarf. Merino dresses make great traveling companions and the fabric both looks and feels luxurious. There are plenty of stunning silhouettes and fun details to choose from, so be sure to consider a merino dress next time you need to class it up.
Lastly, check out the selection of exceptional wool blankets here on Backcountry.com. The ultimate gift for a special birthday, anniversary or your favorite newlyweds, a wool blanket is the perfect companion for every adventurer. Durable, warm, and loaded with heritage, a wool blanket is something you can cherish and pass down in your family for years to come. I have a 40-something year-old Pendleton Camp Blanket that I count among my most sacred possessions. It truly is something you can tote along on every adventure and a heirloom you’ll enjoy for many years.
There you have it: multiple wooly items that will make you extremely happy. But don’t thank us—thank wool. Warm, breathable, sustainable, odor-resistant, classy, comfortable wool. Whether you are treating yourself or looking for the perfect gift, it’s a natural choice.