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?