If you are anything like me then you have often found yourself standing in the clothing store, trying to decide whether there can possibly be any point in spending so much more for an article of clothing which looks the same and is going to fulfil the same function. Most of us don’t invest too much thought in the quality of our underwear, and people are sometimes shocked when they are confronted with the price tag of high-quality woollen thermals. It is not uncommon for Merino wool underwear to cost several times as much as their synthetic counterparts. The question: is wool worth the extra money?
Let’s have a look at a few quick points to help you decide whether wool is worth it to you!
Smell: funny to start a list with “smell”, but it’s a genuine issue with thermals! Synthetic thermal underwear is known to start smelling within the day or two whereas wool thermals can be worn for a long time without washing/rinsing – some people get up to two weeks out of their wool thermals without the need to wash them to remove smell. Ideal if you are hiking or travelling. And wool doesn’t retain a body odour smell after washing the garment, either, whereas many synthetic garments, once smelly, never wash completely odourless ever again.
Wool fibres allow moisture to pass through without first condensing, unlike synthetic fabric which requires moisture to condense first. Practically, this means that when you start to sweat, wool thermal underwear will allow your body to “breathe” away the moisture before you start feeling wet, whereas synthetic thermal underwear won’t begin to wick away moisture until your sweat actually starts to form as water on the surface of your skin. This means that you will stay warmer wearing wool thermal underwear, especially if you are following outdoor pursuits in a cold climate where the air temperature around you isn’t warm enough to evaporate your sweat.
How fast can you dry them?
Synthetic thermal underwear may sometimes dry faster. This is because the fibres are not porous, so the water squeezes out from between the threads and the garment may dry more quickly than wool. However, wool thermals are woven very finely and will not take much longer to dry than synthetic, and then you have the benefit of their keep-warm properties whilst wearing (see Wicking, above).
What’s better for cold weather or hot weather?
Synthetic thermal underwear is known to work all right – in cold weather. But for an all-weather lightweight base layer, you can’t get past Merino wool. The finely knitted fabric of Merino wool base layers make the garments ideal for any weather. They “breathe” moisture in hot weather and keep you cool just as equally as they will wick moisture in cold weather and keep your warmth in! They are the perfect all-purpose garment to have with you when travelling, as you can wear them in all temperatures and terrains. T-shirt style base layer Merino wool “thermals” also look fine and stylish enough to wear in hot weather without any other layers on top – whereas synthetic thermals tend to look ratty faster after only a few washes, and you wouldn’t dream of wearing them out on the town with nothing over them! The Bedouin traditionally wear wool garments to keep them cool in the heat of the day and warm in the cool of the night in the desert.
Wool thermal underwear wins hands down in the static issue. Synthetic fibres build up static; wool fibres do not. If you hate clothes crackling with static, you have to go for the wool!
Which is more durable?
It depends on how you intend to wash and dry your thermal underwear. If you want something you can chuck in the washing machine with all your other clothes, synthetic will last you longer. On the other hand, if you are willing to take just a little more care, using a gentle cleanser that is suitable for wool fabrics, and running the washing machine on a gentle/wool cycle or even better still, hand washing, you will get the same length of life out of wool thermals – or even longer than synthetics. Synthetic fabrics tend to pill more easily and look ratty faster. Wool will hold its natural sheen and smooth finish indefinitely if you treat it right. If you are travelling and want lightweight Merino base layers, ideally just give them a hand-wash or rinse when you have access to a sink or washbasin, then dry flat overnight. They dry quickly being so thin and lightweight so it shouldn’t be necessary to machine-spin-dry Merino wool thermal underwear. And never throw it in a dryer; always air-dry to preserve wool’s performance qualities.
Some people fear that wool thermals next to their skin will make them itch. I personally found this as a child and hated being dressed in woolen undergarments back then, but in adulthood I have tried wool on my skin again with no itching problems. Now I realise that the problem wasn’t the wool itself – it was the wool wash that had been used to wash my woollen clothing when I was a kid! When you buy wool wash specially for wool garments, it often has fancy schmancy scents and softeners added. Avoid these if you have itching issues with wool. In fact, avoid them anytime – they will just clog the natural performance qualities of wool thermal underwear. Instead, choose a gentle, natural wool wash which is scented only with natural essential oils, if at all, and does not have softeners added. The kind of wool detergent sold for washing wool diaper covers (also called “soakers”) is ideal as these detergents will also be suited to the washing of wool for retention of wool’s natural wicking properties. If you don’t have dedicated wool detegerent, you can always just use a little natural liquid handwash and rinse gently but well. And don’t put any fabric softener into the rinse when you rinse out your wool thermals. Few people are actually allergic to wool; it’s more common for people to react to the weird chemicals often put into conventional wool detergents and softener products. Skip the chemicals and you’ll likely find that wool garments don’t give you any more problems!
If you have been debating whether or not to try Merino wool thermal underwear, but haven’t taken the leap yet, don’t forget that off-season is a great time to pick up bargains. So if it’s coming up to summer where you live right now, why not check out the sales on thermal underwear online and pick up a high-quality bargain for the chilly months to come?
Although high quality thermals can last many years, many people find that the undergarments develop yellow or brown tinged stains that look pretty ugly. These stains don’t mean that you have not looked after your clothes, or have not washed them – it is a pretty normal result of wear.
When people think of stain removal they tend to think of dry cleaning – it works for most other clothes, so why not for thermals? The fact is though that chemical dry cleaning is NOT a good idea for getting stains out of thermal underwear.
One – the cost is usually not worth it.
Two – chemical residue in underwear is potentially quite unhealthy…think skin rashes.
Three – there are much simpler, cheaper, and easier ways to whiten up your thermals! Here’s how I do it.
1. Hang them out to dry. Wash them and hang them in the sun. UV rays in sunlight are great at bleaching, and will also remove odours very well. A full day in the bright sun, with any yellowed patches turned to the light, is often enough to cure even really browned underarm thermal tops. This is a good preventative for thermal long johns and other underwear too.
2. Wash – and really wash – by hand. A washing machine only agitates, it does not scrub. put on some gloves, sprinkle on some gentle washing powder on your thermals, and scrub the fabric for a few minutes. Then dry in the sun.
3. Laundry bleach. Not really a safe or gentle wash, but still cheaper and less toxic than the dry cleaners place. Bleach is not at all good for woollens and silks, so use it only on small patches. Don’t soak the whole garment (unless it is seriously yellow and brown all over and you have nothing to lose), rather just mix up a small batch of bleach and water and dab this onto underarm/ other yellowed areas of the thermal underwear.
Extreme weather conditions require extreme clothing, and nothing beats top quality thermal underwear when it comes to keeping warm. Modern thermal underwear can be composed of multiple thin layers of fabric to trap more body heat and still allow the skin to breathe. Polyester, Wool, and silk are all commonly available materials, but what is the best thermal underwear for extreme cold outdoor conditions? Here we have a head-to-head comparison of the three main fabric types.
Polyester is a man made fiber that is fairly inexpensive, and is becoming more and more commonly used in thermals. It does a pretty good job of imitating natural fibers like wool, but unfortunately it has a habit of trapping odors. The combination of ammonia and bacteria that live on your skin quickly results in smelly clothes. Poly-cotton and polyester-wool blends can be a reasonable compromise, being comfortable and fairly breathable. However, when the polyester ratio in thermals goes above 20 or 30% you will find it has a distinct plastic quality. My verdict: Good for a budget solution, and great for short term sports or running underwear for women or for guys, but not for the serious outdoor enthusiast. Although synthetic fibers are constantly advancing, these are not the best thermal underwear for extreme cold situations. Still, this might change in the next few years. We’ll see.
Silk is not usually associated with hard wearing underwear, but silk long johns for men and women are not a bad choice. Silk breathes well, and has a delightfully smooth and cool feeling when worn under heavier outer clothes. In a single layer silk is not terribly effective as insulating underwear, but thanks to its very fine fibers and resulting light fabric it can easily be fashioned into 2 or 3 layer composites. Quite often silk is combined with wool or a cotton layer to increase its weight and thermal properties. Although expensive, silk composite is often regarded as the best thermal underwear for extreme cold where you can stay fairly dry.
Fine wool, most often from Merino sheep farmed in Australia and New Zealand, is probably the ultimate material for thermal underwear. In my opinion pure wool is simply the best thermal underwear for extreme cold hands down. Superfine wool is very smooth and light weight (nothing at all like a scratchy woolen jumper!) and keeps you amazingly warm. For people like me who are into outdoor sports it is ideal because you don’t ever get soaked in sweat, and if you do get wet through you still don’t freeze. Wool doesn’t hold water like a sponge like cotton does, so you still end up with air pockets trapped in the fabric even when it is wet – the result is that it still insulates you. If you are into skiing, hiking, or any other adventure sport then woolens are the best thermal underwear for extreme cold no matter where you are. The only downside to pure wool thermals is that they cost a lot more than polyester or cotton, but once you have worn them you will appreciate it as money well spent. Be wary of really cheap wool-polyester blends that advertise “contains pure wool” or “real wool” and similar – have a look just how much wool they actually contain, since quite often the fine print reveals that they might only have 10% wool with the balance being a cheap and nasty polypropylene filler. A small percentage of synthetic fiber can make woolens more elastic, but above that 20-30% threshold you lose effectiveness.
Remember that you generally get what you pay for, and super cheap outdoor clothes are rarely worth it. Online store like Amazon are a great place to shop for the best long underwear for cold weather and other great camping gear, so keep an eye on the “featured products” list down below to snap up the bargains that come up from time to time.
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