Wool's Renaissance

By Debra Cobb April 29, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a four part series:
Part 1: The Wool Market      Part 3: An Interview with Icebreaker’s Jeremy Moon      Part 4: Bullish on Wool


Long before synthetic materials were invented, wool was the textile of choice for outdoor clothing. Wool fiber is crimpy, high-loft, thermo-regulating, breathable, odor-resistant and fire-resistant; its lanolin content is a natural water repellent; and the fiber can be spun to create yarns with inherent stretch.

Traditional examples of “technical wool” apparel included military uniforms, weatherproof country tweeds and fisherman’s sweaters, compact lodens and stretch ski pants from the Alps, and early versions of base layer garments, better known as “long johns.” During the mid-20th century, however, wool fell out of favor for a number of reasons.

Until the 1970s, garments made from wool had two major drawbacks: coarse yarns made them feel scratchy, and they were difficult to wash without shrinkage. Synthetic fibers, invented during World War I and World War II and heavily marketed from the 1950s to the 1970s, were cheaper and easier to care for. The popularity of the quilted down jacket during the 1970s was another nail in wool’s coffin.

As a result, wool saw its use in textiles fall from 17.4 percent of global fiber consumption in 1950 to 1.3 percent in 2013.

Driven by innovation and marketing efforts over the past few decades, wool has started to get its mojo back—particularly in the burgeoning outdoor industry, where wool’s performance and sustainability attributes are being recognized by a new generation.

Driven by innovation and marketing efforts over the past few decades, wool has started to get its mojo back—particularly in the burgeoning outdoor industry, where wool’s performance and sustainability attributes are being recognized by a new generation.

The Chlorine-Hercosett “superwashing” process, patented in 1973, was an important milestone in the development of washable wool as we know it today. Combining oxidation and a polymer coating, the process smoothes the scales of the wool fiber, making it less scratchy and improving its resistance to shrinkage.

Scientific sheep breeding in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and recently in China and the U.S., brought us merino breeds yielding wool fibers that are stronger, finer, and more pleasant to wear. Spinning machines evolved to create fine-gauge, more-uniform yarns with less pilling or breaking.

In Europe, specialty outdoor brands such as Woolpower, Falke, and Aclima have been using these improved wool yarns in their base layer apparel for athletes and the military since the 1970s.

Merino base layer apparel’s big breakthrough came in 1994 with the establishment of Icebreaker in New Zealand and SmartWool in the U.S. As the story goes, Jeremy Moon wrote his business plan for Icebreaker after wearing a merino wool T-shirt given to him by a New Zealand sheep farmer. The category quickly blossomed, and today a host of merino-based outdoor brands are enjoying success, including SmartWool, Ibex, Terramar Sports, Minus33, Polarmax, Coldpruf and more.

In 2014, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) charted the growth of wool base layer imports into the U.S. from a little more than $4 million in value in 2005 to more than $14 million in 2013. Merino base layer has subsequently given birth to innovative wool developments in the midlayer, lifestyle, outerwear, and performance sock categories—brands such as Duckworth, Super.natural, Voormi, Ramblers Way, Farm to Feet, Point6, and Darn Tough Vermont.

“With wool’s amazing performance characteristics, the outdoor industry is the most logical place for it to be used,” says Petri, vice president of marketing for Nester Hosiery and Farm to Feet. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s made a resurgence.”

Wool is also showing up as an insulation fill material from brands such as SmartWool, Icebreaker, Duckworth, and Bergans of Norway. Ramtect is a wool batting marketed by Hobbs Bonded Fibers in the U.S., and global wool supplier H Dawson has also launched a wool-based insulation for outdoor apparel.

Yarn and textile manufacturers from China to Australia to Europe are at the forefront of wool innovation, blending wool with synthetic fibers such as wicking polyesters, CoolVisions polypropylene, Tencel and high-tenacity Cordura nylon.

In Europe, spinner Südwolle has created merino yarns as fine as Nm 100/2 from 15.5µ fiber. Loro & Festa and Botto Poala have engineered cashmere and wool yarns with water-repellent, moisture-management and stain-resistant qualities.

Polartec’s PowerWool layers wool with wicking synthetic fibers, and other knitters are not far behind. At California-based Global Merino and Australia’s ABMT Textiles, wool is utilized in laminates and spacer fabrics for outdoor wear. Heritage technologies such as fulling, waxing, and decatizing are creating weatherproof woven wools for high-end outdoor brands such as Moncler.

Alternative manufacturing methods, such as body mapping, seamless and whole-garment knitting, and 3D printing with wool, are poised to further enhance wool’s technical profile. Today you’d be hard pressed to find an outdoor apparel brand that doesn’t incorporate wool in some form.

“Utilizing both natural and synthetic fibers, wool has entered areas of textile
development that seemed impossible to achieve 10 years ago,” says Keith Anderson, director of marketing for Ibex Outdoor Clothing. “Wool spinning, knitting, and weaving technologies are improving at an impressive pace right now. Our outlook envisions knit and woven blends that will amplify the inherent beauty and performance of wool.”