For those who haven’t found wool and incorporated it into their daily, year-round life, we recommend making a change. The best part is, it’s never too late to start loving wool. Dubbed as “nature’s own tech fabric,” the wool comeback dates back to the last couple decades, dissolving any preconceived notions that wearing wool is nothing more than an itch-filled experience. Frankly, it’s time to forget about those sweaters your grandmother made for you.
Today, wool makers now dissolve the fabric with processes and techniques capable of removing the itchiness and scales of its cuticle cells. These techniques (referred to as super-washes) also keep pieces from shrinking into kids clothes, while maintaining all the properties that render wool such a luscious fabric. Due in part to these innovative techniques, a host of modern wool brands now offer this fabric in a variety of blends and styles. To help you put those itchy feelings of wool firmly in the rearview mirror, here’s a primer on the best forward-thinking wool brands on the market.
Smartwool — a brand from Steamboat Springs, Colorado — has been in the wool-making business for an astounding 23 years. Easily identified by its logo of a happy person wearing socks, its designs lend themselves to a broad customer base with wearable and almost lifestyle-driven styles. However, the company does produce more technical pieces, like Conrad Anker’s Ph.D. mountaineering socks, for hard-core users. Recently, it also started using wool as insulation rather than just a baselayer.
“We call it SmartLoft, and it’s a blend of mostly merino wool with polyester,” said Molly Cuffe, Smartwool director of Global Brand Marketing, to Digital Trends. “We have a 60-gram, lightest weight, and 120-gram, warmer weight, fill in a range of styles, including hoodies, pullovers, mid-layers, and vests.”
Most of its SmartLoft pieces combine Merino sleeves, which makes a great insulation option for questionable weather and stop-and-go activities. Its designs are also incredibly versatile to the point wearers have the ability to leave it on for both day and night activities.
“Merino wool works naturally with the body’s heating and cooling system, and that helps keep the core temperature more stable. The warmth-to-weight ratio is superb, offering excellent thermoregulation, even when wet,” said Cuffe.
Vermont-based Ibex has been heavily into the wool-insulation world since it introduced the Wool Aire program in 2012.
“Our Wool Aire differs in that the insulation is crafted from a 1/2-inch thick interlocking web of wool fibers called a non-woven batting, creating a lofty structure that maximizes heat and moisture transfer that will keep you warm,” James Fisher, VP of Product for Ibex told Digital Trends. “As the saying goes in Vermont, if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”
Known for its soft woolies — which are 100-percent wool and soft as kittens — these staples remain available via Ibex year-round.
“The foundation of our base layer and mid-layer categories use a fine, micron Merino with a smooth hand,” added Fisher.
Ibex does utilize a super-wash, which uses a “mild chlorine” to descale the wool and reduce shrinkage. “The water is cleanly handled to ensure lowest possible environmental impact. The wool fibers are interconnected in a web structure then sprayed with a resin and cured with heat to create the high-loft structure” Fisher explained. “The bonding resin is an EPA-approved resin that does not create water or air pollution, and is cleanly handled with water processing through our U.S. insulation manufacturer in Texas.”
Now, Ibex has its eyes set on denim.
“Blue jeans are a staple in every closet,” said Fisher. “We took on innovating the traditional cotton denim with wool because our strong desire to deliver best-in-class experiences for our customer. Wool delivers warmth, breathability, and is naturally odor fighting, which should be a staple in everyone’s closet — so why not tackle the daily jean?”
In staying true to its Vermont style of honest artisan endeavors — not to mention the company’s focus on American-made goods — Ibex chose to collaborate with Noble Denim of Tennessee.
“Noble Denim is focused on small-batch production and takes great care with high-quality construction and supreme attention to detail, like our ‘coat of arms’ care labels.”
Another brand debuting wool denim is Ortovox, a Swiss company known for its avalanche transceivers and safety advancements. It’s also a beloved apparel brand. The Merino Denim pants feature a cotton and wool blend, and have a slight elastane stretch. The brand even specifically designed the jeans for climbing, as they come equipped with a chalk bag holder and toothbrush loop. The jeans offer many of the same temperature and moisture management benefits of wool, but also showcase denim’s durability. Needless to say, the jeans are incredibly comfortable and soft.
Although Ortovox has created coveted outdoor apparel for years, it recently gave wool a new job as a liner. Instead of fleece-lined, The Medola Pant is wool-lined. Soft on the inside and featuring a durable soft shell on the outside, the Medolas are reminiscent of a well-cooked souffle. The soft and stretchy fabric feel makes them stand out against the stiff, crunchy hard shell materials most ski pants consist of. With those stiffer materials, you need a big, baggy cut, or else they tend to bind up and hinder freedom of movement.
But its Naturetec pants offer a great jean fit and all the mobility you need. With the natural moisture and microclimate managing properties of wool fibers, they handle a broad range of temperatures and activity levels.
Duckworth, a Montana-based wool brand, was born and raised in America — or, as the company likes to say, it delivers “from sheep to shelf.” Duckworth is unique in that it has its own Rambouillet Merino sheep on site. John Helle, a fourth-generation rancher and Duckworth partner, has been an integral part of the Duckworth vision by raising 15,000 sheep on the home ranch and another 100,000 in the Duckworth Cooperative. The company’s self-reliance and modern heritage are rare qualities, ones reflected in its product.
“Keeping wool as close as possible to the natural beauty that is [is what we strive for] — why turn wool into polyester like other brands are trying to do?” Duckworth president Robert “Bernie” Bernthal told Digital Trends. “The first was our Maverick 100-percent Merino. We found that super-washing the wool was making the wool less supple, less stretchy, and stripped some of the natural benefits of the wool fiber in regard to shape memory.”
Besides remaining American-made and eco-friendly, Duckworth’s designs are clean, classic, and chic. They’re also very technical.
“We are improving all fabrics’ stretch, softness, and consistency,” Bernie added about the company’s sophisticated Vapor line. “The advantages of Vapor is the unique blend of poly-cellulose and wool. In the right yarn construction, this will solve some of the shortcomings of 100-percent merino. Vapor has faster blotting, wicking, and drying time, and is amazingly durable for a lightweight, next-to-skin fabric. Soft and stretchy was the icing on the cake. We use an entirely different spinning system — not worsted — to make the yarn and that’s all I can say.”
Many companies seem to be jumping on the wool wagon as of late, with many former wool makers returning and delivering perfection — just take a look at Arc-Teryx’s new Satoro AR shirts and bottoms. Wyoming-based Stio also has a unique take on wool, one that features a bit of a dressed-up feel. Featuring all the valuable properties of wool, the Basis Powder Dry Shirt remains a customer favorite, and Stio plans to bring it back for the 2017-’18 season with additional styles.
Salewa is also deserving of an honorable mention for its hybrid insulation, TirolWool Celliant, a locally-sourced product from South Tyrol, Austria. Other brands, such as eNZees, a company that specializes in blister care, and Tecinca, a ski company that introduced new Merino ski boot liners, remain game changers within the industry.
Of course, no story on wool is complete without mentioning Pendleton Wool Parks, whose emblematic blankets and throws honor the National Parks.