Too Un-baa-leivable to Be True?
I’m merino mad. I love wearing merino wool and constantly spill yarns about it to convince others to wear it too.
But, I’ll sheepishly admit that I sometimes exaggerate. Here’s my confession:
Merino isn’t perfect.
If it were, I’d wear nothing else. But I wear plenty of non-merino apparel too. And most of the merino clothes I rave about aren’t even 100% merino.
So, instead of trying to pull to wool over your eyes or fleece you, here are the honest benefits and disadvantages of merino wool, how it compares to other fabrics, and my favorite merino apparel.
Merino Wool’s Benefits and Disadvantages
✓ Merino’s Wearable Styrofoam
You know how styrofoam cups keep hot drinks like coffee hot and cold drinks like iced tea cold?
Well, merino does the same for you when you wear clothing made of it. It keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold.
And if the styrofoam analogy doesn’t convince you of merino’s insulating incredibleness, consider Shrek.
Shrek was a renegade. He’s a merino sheep who avoided being sheered for six years and, since merino sheep’s wool doesn’t stop growing, become a giant cotton ball with legs.
If his 60-pound (!) coat were made of any other material, he’d be toast. But because it’s merino, he stayed cool in New Zealand’s hot summers.
✗ Merino’s Not as Soft as They Say
The people who try to tell you merino wool is super soft are probably the same ones who tell you so-and-so veggie burger tastes exactly like real beef.
Merino definitely ain’t silk. It’s not even cotton. That’s why you’re not going to see merino wool towels hit the market any time soon.
But it’s not scratchy like regular wool, either.
Here’s the truth: Sometimes, when I initially put on a merino wool garment, I think, “Hmm, this isn’t that soft.” But that thought doesn’t cross my mind after that. I don’t think about my clothes at all because it’s so magically insulating.
✓ Merino Is Deodorant
Even when I fart the faintest of farts, Kim’s super-sensitive sense of smell can detect it from across the room. It’s annoying.
But she can’t detect when I’m wearing a merino t-shirt for the 10th time without washing it. Somehow, the antibacterial properties of the fabric destroy odors.
Watch the above video if you don’t believe me. This guy wore the same Wool & Prince merino dress shirt for 100 days without washing and people couldn’t tell.
✗ Merino’s Not Invincible
I honestly and respectfully disagree with all the other blog posts out there that claim durability to be one of the benefits of merino wool.
Sure, it’s more durable than the wool sweater your granny knit for you but it isn’t durable compared to whatever you’re wearing now.
You won’t see many merino wool pants or sports apparel on the market and you will see a lot of holes in merino shirts’ elbows because it’s not that stretchy and eventually breaks.
So while it’s easily durable enough to machine wash (every 100 days or so you have to do so), you definitely shouldn’t put any merino in the dryer.
✓ Merino Doesn’t Wrinkle
With merino, I’m assured of avoiding both because the stuff doesn’t wrinkle.
I’m going to wrinkle before my merino clothes do.
✗ Merino’s Plain
Aside from some pretty spiffy dress shirts (at least I think they’re spiffy), most merino wool clothing is plain, practical type attire.
“Unstylish,” some would say.
Kim’s one of them. She doesn’t wear merino simply because she hasn’t found anything that looks good enough for her.
Apparently, merino doesn’t have the versatility of other fabrics and that fashion designers desire to transform it into impractical but stylish designs.
✓ Merino’s Thirsty
Merino can absorb as much as 30% of its weight without feeling wet, making it the most “hydrophilic” of all-natural fibers.
Generally, that’s a good thing because it absorbs your sweat or the rain to keep the fabric clinging to your skin. It gives your skin the room to do its job of regulating your body temperature.
✗ Merino Doesn’t Give Up Moisture Easily
Hydrophilic is Latin for water-loving so, just like if you gave me a beer you’d going to have a hard time getting it back, it takes a while for merino to give up the water it absorbs.
These guys found that a 100% merino wool shirt took 40% longer to dry than a 100% polyester one. (48 minutes vs. 34.)
They also found that an 87% merino, 13% nylon Icebreaker Tech T lite dried just as fast (34 minutes). But I have a hard time believing that.
I often wash and dry my merino wool tank alongside synthetic ones and it always takes longer to dry.
✓ Merino’s Easy-Care for Mother Nature, Too
All-natural merino takes just six months. Watch the above video to see.
So whenever the sad day comes that you have to say goodbye to your trusty merino wool clothing, you can at least take solace in the fact that it’s not going to harm the planet.
✗ Sheep Might Not Appreciate Us Stealing Their Coats
Shrek probably hid from shearing for six years for a reason.
And if you look online, you’ll find horror stories of farmers treating their sheep poorly and learn all about of “mulesing.”
“Mulesing,” to save you from Googling it yourself and seeing the graphic photos, is the removal of large swaths of skin and flesh from the area around the anus of a sheep. Sheep farmers do it to combat a blowfly infestation called “flystrike,” which sometimes afflicts the unnaturally dense, urine- and feces-encrusted skin folds around their animals’ rear ends.
Some farmers have abandoned mulesing for other flystrike prevention techniques. Others do it because it works and is good for the sheep.
And most merino brands say they take caution to only work with ethical farmers.
It’s up to you to form your own opinion on whether this is a disadvantage of merino or not.
✓ Merino Keeps the Dirt Off My Shoulder
One final magical benefit of merino wool is that it is naturally anti-static.
I didn’t know this until doing research for this post, but static attracts lint and dirt and other tarnishes.
That explains why, in addition to its odor- and wrinkle-lessness, I can wear merino so many days on end without having to clean it.
✗ Merino Takes a Lot of Money out of My Pocket
You may get a bit of sticker shock when you see the prices of my favorite merino wool clothes.
I think they were worth the investment. You may not.
Merino Wool vs. Other Fabrics
Merino vs. Synthetics
Low-quality synthetic shirts start stinking as soon as you look at them, stain easily, and don’t insulate, but they’re more stretchy and durable than wool.
Higher quality synthetics do a better job at negating the downsides. Prior to getting into merino, I was all about Lululemon’s shirts. I still have some and wear them regularly. But they cost the same as merino.
Merino vs. Cotton
Cotton’s definitely softer, cheaper, and more versatile from a style standpoint, but it’s worse for any type of activity because it gets heavier, stinkier, and dirtier faster.
Merino vs. Wool
Merino should have taken a lesson from alpaca and cashmere and completely dropped the word “wool” from its name.
“Wool” brings back mostly negative memories of having to wear unpleasantly scratchy clothes to cope with even more unpleasant weather. And it always had holes in it.
Merino’s fibers are finer, which makes it softer, and longer, which makes it stronger.
Merino vs More Exotic Furs
Speaking of cashmere and alpaca, there are plenty of other animal furs like mohair, angora, and camel that are less popular than merino but may have some potential as technical clothing.
Alpaca, in particular, seems to be gaining some steam as a merino alternative.
Arms of Andes is one of the companies making the push. They read this post, contacted me to say, “You think merino’s hot stuff? Try alpaca,” then stuck their neck out (you know, because alpacas have long necks) by sending me a 100% alpaca base layer to prove it.
My opinion after two months of heavy use:
- Looks and feel is closer to cashmere than technical merino.
- Super warm. Despite being thin (230 GSM), I get by with just it in 10°C/50°F. No wonder alpacas stay warm way up in the Andes.
- At least as dirt and smell resistant as merino. Despite wearing it for workouts and beach volleyball all through the fall, Kim hasn’t smelled it and said, “Eww, gross. You have to wash that,” yet.
- TBD on durability and how it’ll hold up now that we’ve relocated from rainy, cold Vancouver to warm, dry Cape Town.
So alpaca’s truly hot stuff. I’ll see how cool it is over these next few months. What’s definitely cool is the Arms of Andes founders’ story and mission. It’s worth checking out.
Merino vs. Nothing
The best fabric is no fabric at all.
But wearing nothing’s not perfect, either. No matter hairy I get, body hair’s horrible at insulating. And it’s generally frowned-upon to walk around over-exposed.
Merino with Other Fabrics!
Some companies are messing with nature and combing Merino for super fancy, technical fabrics. Many of my favorite products are made this way.
Let me tell you about some of them now.
Great Merino Gear
I want your first merino experience to be as good for you as it was for me, so start slow and start with the best.
Try with one of the following merino wool products and, if you like it, start going crazy.
Wool&Prince Wool-Linen Button Down
This short-sleeved Wool & Prince button-down shirt is from the guy in the video above who wore the same shirt for 100 days.
I’m still working it in but it’s already become my go-to for travel (the chest pocket’s key for boarding passes and passports and the no-stink’s a relief to people sitting by me) and for going out for tapas here in sweltering, summer Spain.
Because it’s half linen, it gets more wrinkly than 100% merino clothes, but I don’t mind. It gives the shirt a less preppy and more casual look.
Outlier Ultrafine Merino Tee
Remember when I wrote above that merino’s not as soft as they say? Well, I wrote that before Outlier sent me their Ultrafine Merino t-shirt. The shirt very nearly feels like soft cotton but acts like merino (no smell, wrinkles, etc.).
Just like Outlier’s shorts, it didn’t wow me out the box, but won me over the more I wore it. It has now taken the title of favorite t-shirt from my Icebreaker Cool-Lite Sphere merino shirts. I just wish I’d picked a better color.
The only thing that holds me back from declaring it as a must-buy for first-time merino wool wearers is that it’s as crazy expensive as it’s crazy good. Maybe ask for one for your birthday.
Or, for a great merino t-shirt that’s almost as good as Outliers and not quite as expensive, consider getting one from Unbound. (Outlier and Unbound…basically the same name, too!) I have a charcoal gray one and would definitely buy another if I lost it.
Icebreaker Cool-Lite Momentum Shorts
It’s funny that they call these shorts “Momentum” ($90) because I basically only wear them when sitting around at home.
I rarely wear them out of the house because Kim says they’re not suitable for the public, but the first thing I do when I get home is put them on.
Darn Tough Athletic Socks
Darn Tough is a great name and these socks live up to it. They’re guaranteed for life.
Get a pair and try this challenge:
Wear them for a workout, let them dry out, and give them a whiff.
Wool-d You Give it a Chance?
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that merino wool’s benefits far outweigh its disadvantages.
If not, please leave a comment to share your doubts or to share what fabric you prefer and why.