Fifty million Ruminants can't be wrong: Wool rocks, and new itch-free treatments and blends are making it the new skiwear fabric of choice.
Now that each of us has at least four pilled-up, cigarette-burned fleece vests in our closet, it's easy to forget that skiwear wasn't always spun from petroleum distillates. Before there was synthetic insulation, there was wool. And skiers liked it. It was warm, long lasting, quick drying, and imbued with an undeniable timeless sense of worth.
Problem was, because it was made of animal hairs with pointy ends, the stuff was castigated by six-year-olds the world over as "itchy," and there were few adults who could wear it without a buffer layer of cotton underneath. Cotton's poor technical performance gave rise to the current dominance of moisture-wicking polypropylene underwear and its chunkier cousin, polyester fleece. In the process, wool was mothballed.
But wool is back. Thanks to new manufacturing techniques pioneered by a handful of suppliers, wool is being boiled, scrubbed, blended, and otherwise reinvented to improve its washability and eliminate its historical prickliness. The result: Low-maintenance, itch-free, natural-fiber technical layers that just might outfleece fleece in every performance category. Wool has a higher warmth-to-bulk ratio than most synthetics, and because it insulates even when wet, it eliminates the cold clammies. Wool also absorbs moisture, holding it above your skin for your body heat to dry rather than simply wicking it to the inside of your jacket to congeal in pools. Thus, wool dries quickly, and it doesn't accrue that foul bottom-of-the-gym-bag stench so many makers of synthetic fabrics have tried to combat with antimicrobial chemicals. What else? Wool is durable. It stretches. It repels dirt. And it doesn't melt when attacked by flying campfire embers.
A number of companies have introduced treated-wool and wool-blend base layers that go head-to-head against synthetic long underwear. Devold's Active line laminates a soft wool blend to a wicking inner layer of Dupont Thermastat, creating an efficient moisture-management system. For its Superwash Merino line, Ibex processes high-grade merino wool to a cozy softness that can be worn against the skin, managing both hot and cold temperatures. Similar long undies are available from Ortovox and SmartWool.
Thicker wool insulating pieces are also taking on pop-bottle fleece. Woolrich's Techno- Wool is woven so tightly it can be used as a windproof outer layer. Ibex offers jackets and vests made from a stretchy, wool-blended Schoeller fabric that's so weatherproof it basically is an outer layer. And Ibex's loden-wool jackets are the Hummers of the category: supertough but luxurious. EIR's prettily adorned merino-wool jackets and sweaters are more like Jaguars.
On the perennial side, Devold, Dale, and Drops have outfitted traditional Norwegian sweaters with windproof, breathable liners. And let us not forget the retro-hip wool and wool-acrylic ski sweater, available from Demetre and Meister.
In accessories, wool is appearing in everything from gloves (as in SmartWool's leather-shelled Ski Glove) to ski-boot liners (in Dolomite's Sintesi boots). Wool-blend ski socks -- like Wigwam's Tandem II's -- are currently the state of the art. And wool hats are getting a boost from bold styles by the likes of Jytte, a small Sun Valley-based hat maker that operates its own fine-gauge knitting mill capable of producing intricate woolen designs.
DALE OF NORWAY: 800-441-3253; www.dale.no
DEMETRE: 800-934-3779; www.gerrysportswear.com
DEVOLD: 800-4-DEVOLD; www.devold.com
DOLOMITE: 800-257-2008; www.dolomite.com
EIR: 303-440-4592; www.eirsports.com
IBEX: 8800-773-9647; www.ibexwear.com
JYTTE: 208-788-1226; www.jytte.com
MEISTER: 800-828-3372; www.ifera.com
SMARTWOOL: 800-550-WOOL; www.smartwool.com
WIGWAM: 800-558-7760; www.wigwam.com
WOOLRICH: 800-995-1299; www.woolrich.com