Merino wool comes from the Merino sheep which produce a wool which is durable and soft. Typically these sheep are from New Zealand, however there are more and more of these farms springing up around the globe. Typically, these sheep graze in the low lying valleys of mountains, as well as climb the mountains, and thus the wool they grow must be able to help them survive those vastly different climates.
To many, merino wool is a bit of a super fabric.
The benefits of merino wool are huge, and hard to believe when you first read about them. The first is thermal regulation, which is a fancy way of saying that it will keep you warm when it’s cold, and cool when it is warm. The second is anti-odor: it naturally resists odor. The last is water repellence: it has natural ability to repel water (due to the natural oils in the fibers), as a lightly coated DWR garment might, and thus helps with stain resistance.
Thermal regulation is a massive factor of comfort throughout the day — it’s why people often buy specific clothing for the gym, because that clothing is better at thermal regulation than their cotton t-shirts.
Merino is awesome at keeping your body comfortable in two ways. Moisture wicking — as you sweat, the merino will absorb that sweat, pulling it away from your body and towards the fabric’s surface where it will dry quickly. Insulation — merino can help your body regulate temperature because the natural shape of the fiber allows it to trap a lot of air. This makes it act as an insulating layer, just like the fiberglass insulation in your house. This insulating effect helps keep you warm in the cold and cool in the heat.
Lastly, merino wool is anti-odor, and we specifically use anti-odor instead of the more common ”anti-bacterial” or “anti-microbial” because those are both technically questionable. The gist of it is this: merino wool tends to not trap odors for a variety of reasons, the most accepted that the absorptive power of the fiber traps moisture, giving no place for odor causing bacteria to grow. That means: body odor, and external odors. Because of this, people often are able to wear their merino clothing many times before it needs to be washed.
The Wool Misconception
You already know what wool is, so when people tell you to wear merino wool underwear or t-shirts, you think they are crazy because wool is itchy. And you are right, wool is itchy. But merino wool is not itchy. It’s best to not think of merino as wool, and instead just as merino.
There are some people who do find merino to be itchy, while many will say it’s an allergy, in many cases it’s just sensitive skin. Additionally, not all merino is equal, as the larger diameter fibers, and thus cheaper, merino is much more scratchy feeling on your skin. But in general ultra fine and fine merino wool is as soft as cotton to most people.
Aside from those who are sensitive, there are a few downsides to merino wool.
The first downside is durability. Merino wool is not inherently fragile in clothing, but it also can be prone to pilling (those little balls of fabric you get on sweaters) in areas of abrasion as well as snags. So while it generally holds up as well as soft cotton, there is some risk with it. In some items, the merino is blended with synthetic fibers (such as nylon) to provide some extra strength and durability to the fabric (however, this can interfere with some of the odor resistance).
The next downside is care. The best way to care for merino is to not hang it, and to wash it in a delicate washer (or hand wash), with special soap, and air drying. This can be a deal breaker for some, but also is quickly something you get used to.
The biggest downside of merino is the price. There’s not a lot of merino wool out there, and thus it’s an expensive material to work with. Rarely will you see a merino t-shirt dip below the $60 per item mark. Even though it will last (and you will need far fewer garments), it’s a high barrier to entry.
While many people debate about the odor resistance, we’ve found that allowing the merino to air out between wears typically will wipe away any smells in just a few hours.
Merino is well worth the high cost of entry, and will likely cause you to drastically pare down your wardrobe as merino clothing can be worn many times in one week without looking or smelling dirty.
Where we like it
The absolute best starting point for merino is socks. They are simple, less expensive than other garments, and very effective tools for showing just how amazing merino is. Our feet sweat throughout the day, but with merino wool they will stay comfortable. Often you can wear the same pair of socks all week, and never detect a smell from them — even after hard workouts. So if you are new to merino and need to test the water, get a pair of socks.
Beyond that, the only garments made of merino we have yet to find in a piece we love is in pants. Otherwise underwear, dress shirts, t-shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, and everything else is pretty great in merino.