I should start this article by confessing that I am a wool fan. Indeed, I’m a great proponent of it and have been since I was 16 or so. Having done years of research into it and the qualities of wool, I am sure when you try it, you will appreciate it as much as I do. It has the potential to be the 21st Century fibre. The most famous of wools is that of the Merino sheep. Bred for hundreds of years to provide the finest wool, it was guarded as a natural secret of the Spanish nation, which only became internationally open after the Napoleonic Wars. Merino wool is not merely the prince of wools, but for those who, like myself, choose to wear it, it becomes the preferred item in the wardrobe.
Why wool could be the most accurate question now for many people. Wool is perceived as an itchy irritant, relegated to our grandparents’ generation. Currently, we are so used to synthetic fabrics that are very different from natural fibres. While we may think that wool is outdated and obsolete that even the most advanced synthetics do not have.
Wool has retained its supporters: suit manufacturers maintain that it is the best fabric for suits (hence the humorous line in LaLaLand). Athletes and ramblers also enjoy wool; it is well known in the cycling world. The famous Swedish company Fjällräven maintain wool is the best base layers and a very good middle layer, and use it extensively in their expeditions, including the Fjällräven Polar. The British SAS recently ordered a large supply of shirts for their soldiers in the Middle East, due to its comfort in both hot and cold environments.
Why is this? Some of wool’s amazing properties are listed below, as surprisingly, wool is one of the best fibres known to man.
Contrary to the common perception, it is not automatically itchy and prickly but can be washed. It also offers UV protection, breathable, and under the right conditions, biodegradable. It is the best temperate regulating fibre known to man, does not absorb stains or smells, and is six times stronger than cotton.
It’s also naturally a fire retardant: British firefighters are unanimous in stating it is safer for all involved. As the patron for the Campaign For Wool Prince Charles did a test with woollen blankets and newspaper. When removed from the source of fire, the woollen items naturally extinguished, unlike the synthetics which required considerable amounts of fire retardant.
It is also odour resistant – you can literally wear it for three days, hang it up for another three days and at the end of it, it doesn’t smell anymore. There was a famous experiment by a wool entrepreneur – now the founder of Wool & Prince, where a person wore a single wool shirt for 100 days. This is because it is anti-microbial, which is a fancy word to say it resists and kills bacteria and germs.
Tailors and fashion designers call it their preferred fabric as it is strong enough to withstand their work while retaining its ‘drape’ and richness of colour and texture, but the main reason is that wool is an elastic fibre. It can be repetitively stretched 33% again its size without any damage and is six times stronger and more durable than cotton. This means it is naturally wrinkle resistant and doesn’t require ironing nearly as often as rival fibres.
Due to its elasticity, it can absorb between 1/3 to 1/2 of its weight in water without feeling wet. Indeed, because it is hydroscopic, it actually gives off heat as it absorbs water. And wool does not shrink when it gets wet – unless it is in a hot water wash. This is the key issue for owners of wool – the cold wash setting on your washing machines is your friend.
At this point, you may be wondering what the catch is. After all, if wool is this good, why don’t we wear more of it? There is one key factor: the thickness of the wool strand, measured in microns, or a millionth of a metre. If it is thinner than 30 microns, then it can be worn next to the skin, and will not only not itch, but would be remarkably soft and comfortable. Indeed, it is medically used for those with skin conditions such as dermatitis and fibromyalgia with remarkable success.
While merino wool clothes offer all these benefits, much of the market is controlled by a number of companies who have built their business on its qualities, and are determined not to let it slip away. For this reason, wool, naturally more expensive than petrol or cotton based products has a tendency to be expensive. Merino, as the best of the wools, is again even more expensive. This can mean a henley shirt can cost up to £60, but can be found for less than half that price on sale. They are durable, and because they do not require as frequent washing can be worn more often than their competitors. They are investments in comfort, and for those who are often in activewear, the sensation of being at the “right” temperature and humidity is an unparalleled benefit and one that still amazes me. The major difference is making the change from 10 somewhat comfortable shirts, of which 4 are always in the laundry, to 4 or 5, of which one is in the laundry, two are being aired out and the remainder are soft, warm, comfortable and ready to be worn. As somebody who has made the change, I can heartily recommend it. Many of us have that cuddly, but slightly itchy, thick and warm woollen jumper, and while it is a great asset, the thin, comfortable base layer is truly the quantum leap for the wardrobe.
If you have any questions in relation to merino wool, there are many sites that offer more in-depth explanations, but I will answer to the best of my ability any questions in the comments box below. If you’re already a wool appreciator, “ayes” in the comments are also great, but better still are the new comments by those new to merino wool.