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the trials and tribulations of merino wool

so, merino has been around for quite a while in various capacities.  i know this because i keep wearing the damn things out.  a few thoughts, questions and observations, comments welcome.

-the holes.  100% wool isn't as durable as blends or synthetics, I get that.  but do my pack straps HAVE to wear holes in every short sleeved wool t shirt I own? years ago, i put my thumbs right through the long sleeves of a couple of merino baselayers, just ripped a big hole. Has anyone found a merino synthetic blend that they like, that retains the qualities of the wool without the synthetic downsides (stiffer fabric, yucky smell, etc) but is meaningfully more durable for a t shirt weight shirt? icebreaker has introduced wool shirts with a nylon 'core,' whatever that means, which i suppose is intended to increase durability.  Patagonia has tried various blends to address this (more on that below), and icebreaker has introduced a 'core' fabric with wool surrounding nylon strands.  

-Patagonia's various iterations of merino.  i loved their expedition weight half zip baselayer shirts, 100% wool, but ripped holes in the arms, twice, in the early-mid 90s.  a few years later, i picked up a pair of long john bottoms that feel very nice....but the elastic waistband was a disaster and quickly became permanently malformed and uncomfortable.  i still have them, but i won't wear them if i plan to be really active because they invariably ride down.  and my butt needs to stay warm.  

a couple of years ago, i picked up a long sleeved midweight crewneck shirt that had some kind of 'core' technology, wool wrapped around nylon.  it is far more durable than pure wool but substantially less stretchy, and somewhat less comfortable as a result.  i wear it, and it is well-made (flat seams, thumb loops that work), but not as comfortable thus not what i reach for.  today, Patagonia is blending merino and capilene.  has anyone tried that? is it worthwhile?

-beanie hats.  sure, wool hats take longer to dry, but i love those wool beanies from Ibex, and Smartwool sells a double-layer 'cuffed beanie' that is fabulous (2 layers of wool means it takes forever to dry out, though).  

-does the brand matter? i think so.  i have tried garments from smartwool, icebreaker, ibex, patagonia over the years (plus bridgedale, smartwool, darn tough, and fits socks).  isome definitely do better than others in my opinion.  what do you like and why?

-what the heck did smartwool do to their heavier merino wool socks? these used to be my staple, go-to socks, bar none.  they wore out, they stretched out some, but they were great.  my last pair of heavier socks from them became matted and boa constrictor-tight after a few sessions of washing and line drying.  while i still like their lightweight merino liner, the heavier socks have changed for the much worse.  :{

-socks deserve their own category.  my regular hiking socks are mostly fits, a few older pair of bridgedale.  expedition socks are bridgedale and a few older pair of smartwools that i'm nursing along.  for tighter-fitting shoes, trail runners and approach shoes, i have some ankle-high darn tough and point 6 socks i really like.  finally, i have one pair of merino running socks from Balega - love them, love most of their running socks.  what do you use and like?

-heavier items.  sweaters have been around forever.  i tend not to wear them hiking because they're too warm and not so flexible for conditions - can't unzip a crewneck sweater.  besides, the merino sweaters i have look like they are meant for an office on casual friday.  on the other hand, ibex makes a very warm fleecy-type merino hoody jacket, full zipper (the nomad hoody) that is really interesting, received it as a gift a few years ago.  it's fairly close-fitting and not terribly stretchy.  but, it's great in so many ways.  pockets with zippers, a decent hood, super warm, breathes well and has that zipper if you really want to air out.  as warm as a midweight polarfleece.  not happy when it gets damp, as fleecy wool absorbs a fair bit of moisture.  

good stuff Andrew. I like Darn Tough socks above all others now. They really do seem tougher.

I only use smartwool bottoms but tear them up within a year or two. In very cold conditions I wear them under shorts and invariably snag them on brush or branches at some point.

I've been wearing the same SmartWool base layer for several winters now, and it's held up well. Wife keeps telling me I need a union suit with a flap in the back if I'm going to live in my long johns all the time. 

When I was a kid, I wore Military wool socks made by Du-ray. It was probably a Canadian brand. Made of 100% virgin wool they tended to wear out very quickly. But, I learned to darn my socks and made them last much longer. Now I wear Dachstein type boiled wool socks which last about 5+ years or so. At $24 dollars a pair I would say they are a good deal.

Because I live in a part of the world with only two seasons, cool and downright cold, I wear wool base layers pretty much year round. My usual brand of choice is Stanfield's from Nova Scotia. They make very fine wool underwear from something called Super-wash Wool as apposed to Merino. The current ones I am wearing have lasted at least 5 years of steady use. (I only take them off to wash them) They have discoloured a little and are showing a little wear on the cuffs, but are still serviceable. I also never put them in the dryer although it says you can.

Recently though I have tried Merino wool like Smartwool. They seem fine so far with a minimal amount of wear. Never had a problem with shoulder straps though, but it's still early. I found their PHD t-shirt surprisingly hard far.

I am not sure if the cost is worth it, though for Merino. My Stanfield's cost around 40 or 50 dollars while Smartwool cost over a hundred for a zip neck of equal weight and warmth.

I wore Stanfields for years. Now I think a lot of Merino sheep. It helps to buy socks with some nylon and lycra in them to stand up to the wear.  I used to say a prayer thanking geese for giving me their down feathers to stay warm when it was really cold like in Wyo. Now it is time to think about thanking the sheep.

I gave up on merino shirts a long time ago because of durability and cost. I only ise merino socks, beanies, balaclava, glove liners, mid weight gloves, and sweaters now.

for short sleeves i use under armor loose gear or fit whatever they call it. Long sleeves i use capaline 3 typically or a light merino sweater over a ua shirt.

the ua shirts do build a stench. But i just suck it up and will occasionally do a nalgenr bottle washing machine day in the field

I'm not a fan of the fit of Smartwool socks, either. They don't stretch enough to fit my big calves, and are a little loose on my feet. The latter isn't a problem in my work boots, but they're useless in my hikers or Sorels. 

I, too, have gone to Darn Tough exclusively for hiking socks. I've never had socks so comfortable, they fit over my calves very well and don't bunch up inside my boots. It's been about 2 years since I started wearing them, I wear them every day (2-3 days per pair) and there's no sign of wear yet. I bet I have almost as much invested in my Darn Tough socks as I do my Fugitive GTX, St. Elias GTX, and Sorels LOL. 

Does the brand matter?  In my experience - yes.  I've use merino from Smartwool, Patagonia, Ibex, Icebreaker, I/O Merino, Wool Power, and Minus 33.  I don't find Smartwool and Patagonia to be as good as the others - not as durable.  The rest have proven to be quite durable.  My favorite base layers are made by IO Merino - they add 4% lycra and I think they fit better for it.

Socks - Darn Tough and FITS, hands down better than the rest I have tried.

I am in agreement with Allen on this Smartwool is the inferior product brand of all of them ...I used smartwool as a baselayer and they only lasted a year.    I use Ibex for my baselayer and T shirts although I do have some synthics for hiking as well...My socks are Darn tough and use them for 4 years now...Although I am interested in what people think of the point 6 (Hint for a review)......

ppine said:

"..Now I think a lot of Merino sheep..."

 Sounds like you have spent too much time in the backcountry ;)


Denis- the point 6 socks are very good quality, as you'd expect (the old smartwool were great quality until they were sold, founders then started point 6). They are comparable to a darn tough brand. I think Vince did a couple reviews of them years ago. 

i should add that i while i like the point 6 lighter socks, the ankle high ones, i like the comparable ones from darn tough a little better.  they're both quite good.  also, i picked up a pair of smartwool phd socks very recently on clearance, and my very early impressions are much better than for smartwool's thicker and more cushioned boot socks. 

August 11, 2020
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