Among performance (or travel) clothing favorites, you will often see the seemingly magical properties of merino touted. Properties like odor resistance and thermal regulation are king as these allow the garments to wear more comfortably and to go longer before they develop odors. Merino can be made into fabrics anywhere from luxuriously soft (Outlier’s Ultrafine Merino T-shirt being a great example), to durable but still soft (in the case of nylon core spun fibers, like the Wool & Prince T-shirt) and then to heavy and rougher (like Filson’s Crew Neck Guide Sweater). Merino garments, though, also tend to be some of the most expensive you can add to your closet.
It’s natural then to look at the abundance of merino based clothing and wonder when it’s too much. When do you hit a law of diminishing returns with merino wool? And, if you’re looking to cut some cost in your clothing lineup, where can you move away from merino to less costly materials?
We’ve been debating just this for a while now, especially for layering pieces that don’t directly contact your skin. But also for pants where the durability of merino, as well as the performance make us question the utility of such garments. In these instances, you can often even get multiple wears out of a traditional cotton garment (most people don’t wash their blue jeans very often, or in some cases, ever).
While a merino garment certainly will go longer than anything else without starting to smell, we’ve come to find that this isn’t always necessary. Take a pullover for example — you probably wear it over another shirt and when it’s cool out, so it doesn’t see your skin and you are probably sweating less. This type of wear isn’t a recipe for odors, and thus probably not a scenario where the performance of merino wool is going to add a ton to your life. There is a logical argument to be made that with a pullover (or something similar), merino is overkill. It’s not going to make the garment worse — you will still get the benefits — but at the same time you are paying a premium for something where the net realized benefits will be marginal at best. Or, put another way: whether lambswool, cashmere, or merino (or even a good synthetic blend), the sweater would perform within a close enough range on all fronts that you should buy the one which price works best for you.
On the thermoregulation aspect, you certainly won’t find any (comfortable or normal looking) fabric that will keep you warmer than merino. The natural ability of the fibers to trap air helps keep you warm. Therefore, in cases where you value packability or weight, it can be worth it to go with merino. But not always, as some merino wool will not pack as compactly as down, or even some newer synthetic garments. That said, merino adds another benefit in being easier to wash when traveling.
Another area we’ve started seeing merino show up is in jacket insulation. Icebreaker has their MerinoLOFT technology, which is an insulation made from merino wool. They tout it as an evolution of down and an alternative to synthetic down. While we haven’t tried anything like this, it seems like another area where merino probably doesn’t offer much over its synthetic counterparts. And you pay a high price for something you are likely not to notice, and perhaps which has other drawbacks from more traditional insulation pieces.
With pants, Ben has thoroughly destroyed a pair of Icebreaker wool pants over the course of just a year — while noticing little benefit from the merino wool itself. Often the wool needed washing more than basic blue jeans did — and didn’t perform as well as synthetic pants options like Outlier’s offerings. So even in the case where these pants are coming into direct contact with your skin, there’s little reason to select these over more durable options. Since Ben’s experience, many others have released merino blend pants (like CIVIC’s Frank Chino). I tried purchasing a pair to try, but the fit seemed really off so I didn’t keep them to give them a thorough test.
With the hoodie Ben recently reviewed, he found that while comfortable and performant, a hoodie may not be a good garment to use 100% merino wool as the material. Outlier has long made a HARD/CO Merino ZIP Hoodie which has cotton facing on the outside for better durability and merino on the inside for the performance — yet you pay a significant price ($395) for that benefit. Whereas most people rarely have performance and durability issues with a standard cotton hoodie.
Ultimately, the choice between merino or other performance fabrics comes from your use case for the garment. We’ve found pieces that don’t spend much time directly on skin as good places to look elsewhere where the expense isn’t justified. That said, you can often find very inexpensive merino sweaters from big box stores like J. Crew and Banana Republic (among others). While you don’t necessarily need merino in these garments, it is an added bonus if the price is right.
For most layering, outerwear, and pants, we have found that merino wool is often overkill and comes at an added financial cost as well as, possibly, durability issues.