A material gain for activewear

Wool stages a comeback against synthetics in clothes for outdoors

Health & Fitness

October 26, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

Scratch and sniff. That's the story of wool, yesterday and today.

The former is the old wool, the clothing of itchy necks, overheating and Michelin Man bulk.

The latter is the new one: soft as peach fuzz, toss it in the washer, odorless.

After a two-decade assault by the makers of synthetic materials, wool is making a comeback.

"What's old is new," says Pete Gilmore of Eastern Mountain Sports, a major outdoors outfitter. "Wool never totally went away, but it's coming back with a new spin."

That new spin is courtesy of New Zealand merino sheep, which generate a wool fiber that is less than one-third the diameter of a human hair. Merino wool fibers don't have the barbs of traditional wool fibers, which cause the prickly sensation we all learned to hate.

Companies that use merino wool won't discuss their processing techniques beyond the vaguest terms, but whatever it is they do creates a spun fiber that is machine-washable and doesn't shrink in dryers.

And unlike many synthetic fabrics that retain body odor like an aerobic workout room, wool doesn't make a stink.

"You can wear it base layer to outerwear," says Emily Walzer, fabric and fiber technology editor for Outdoor Business, a trade publication. "There's a natural fiber revolution going on, and organic is a big buzzword now."

Wool is a great insulator, with tremendous wind and water resistance (it's the lanolin). It's tough, and some damage is repairable.

At Outdoor Retailer, the twice-annual trade show held in Salt Lake City, clothing companies were as eager to show off their sheep as a farmer at a 4-H show.

Some companies, such as Pennsylvania-based Woolrich, never strayed from the flock. Others, such as Patagonia and Arc'Teryx, have augmented their synthetic line with wool sweaters. Then there are the companies such as Ibexwear, a Vermont clothing manufacturer, and Colorado's Smartwool that have decided to stake their futures on New Zealand wool.

"It's been an almost painless message," says Els Fonteyne of Ibexwear. "It's like, 'wool, remember us?' and people think, 'Why did we drop it in the first place?' "

The 6-year-old company not only makes winter clothing, it also uses a super-lightweight wool in its summer line that includes wool T-shirts, polo shirts and a bike short (also made with Lycra).

"It's durable, breathable, sustainable. It can be knitted, woven or felted," Fonteyne says. "It keeps you warm when it's cold and cool when it's hot. Who knew?"

The synthetic rise

The public's drift to plastic-based fibers began in the mid-1970s, when Helly Hansen rolled out LIFA underwear made of polypropylene. In 1981, Malden Mills added Polartec fleece to the plastic arsenal.

Retail clothing outlets from L.L. Bean to Lands' End quickly embraced the new materials. "Polypro" and fleece were followed by CoolMax, Capilene and a laundry list of other man-made fibers.

The synthetic manufacturers went on the offensive, depicting natural fibers as inconvenient and, in some cases, dangerous. Athletes and hikers were warned that wet cotton clothing wicked away body warmth, which could lead to hypothermia. "Cotton kills," became the anti-natural message, and wool was somehow implicated.

Gardner Flanigan, a spokesman for Smartwool, admits wool clothing manufacturers "didn't do a good job of marketing against synthetics. DuPont and others made people believe they can't live without synthetics."

But the synthetics have their own dark side, and you can smell it a mile away. Plastic fibers wick sweat away from skin, and while the moisture evaporates, the malodor lingers.

In 2001, some Montana State University students wore shirts, half made of merino wool and the other half made of synthetics, during a five-day backpack in the Beartooth Mountains. They didn't change or wash the tops.

When they returned, they took their shirts to the research lab, where engineers looked at the bacteria colonies that took up residence in the fibers. Wool won not only under the microscope, but as the Bozeman Daily Chronicle quoted senior research engineer Ryan Jordan, "The difference in odor between the two sides was amazing."

Wool gets smarter

Walzer, the fiber technology editor, says clothing manufacturers who use wool have gotten smarter, designing "Euro-stylish garments that can be used on the ski slopes and worn later into town for dinner."

Fonteyne of Ibexwear agrees. "We're getting into the design of it more. People want to be warm, but they want to look good, too. For our women's line, we've made clothes more feminine, so you don't look like Ms. Boxy Woman."

Of course, wool isn't without its problems. For one thing, clothing made from merino wool is about 30 percent more expensive. Cheaper grades of wool remain, somewhat blurring the differences between the itchy stuff and merino. But most manufacturers who use merino wool trumpet the fact, reducing the chance that consumers will have the wool pulled over their eyes.

And fleece retains its cuddly reputation.

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