Does the thought of 100% wool bring you out in a cold sweat fearing your beautiful garment will shrink in the wash?
Or in an itchy, hot sweat when you remember how uncomfortable you were in that chunky turquoise jumper a family member knitted? (Sorry Dorris!)
Or are you anti-synthetic, for reasons that go back to the 1970’s static-filled shell suit look?
Well, today we’re landing in the 21st century and are giving you an insight into merino wool and synthetic fabrics to answer the question.
So, is merino wool better than synthetics for outdoor gear?
Yes, if you’re looking for one fabric that covers most bases then it’s got to be merino. Nature has provided a breathable, water repellent, warm, low odour, low environmental impact coat to protect merino sheep from the arid conditions of Spain to the freezing, high altitudes of New Zealand mountain ranges. You can’t get much more versatile and natural than that!
However, there is a place for synthetic materials.
If you need your gear to deliver a specific purpose, then don’t discount what modern engineering has to offer. The advanced technology incorporated into many modern synthetics make these a fabric not to be overlooked, especially as outer shells to protect you from unplanned torrential downpours.
Read on for a rambunctious jaunt through the pros and cons of both types of fabric, giving you our opinion, so you can decide for yourself what you would prefer to wear on your next adventure in the 21st Century.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty:
What is Merino Wool?
Quite simply, merino wool comes from merino sheep.
Originally a breed from Spain but now they can be found all over the world.
The wool these sheep produces is different from other types of wool because it is much finer, unbelievably soft and has unique properties more beneficial for us, compared with other wools.
What is Synthetic Fabric?
Synthetic fabrics are non-natural, manmade fabrics produced from a chemical process.
Synthetic fabrics include nylon, polyester, spandex, and many trade name synthetics which have been produced by particular brands.
The modern synthetics that we see in our quality outdoor clothing today have been micro-engineered. Each synthetic has particular properties and can be treated to make them more suitable for different purposes.
Let’s break down our findings to see what each fabric has to offer.
Breathability and Ability to Wick
Merino wool is highly breathable and has the ability to wick moisture away from the body and evaporate it into the air, keeping you dry and your body temperature regulated.
It can absorb almost a third of its weight in moisture without it feeling wet!
This extraordinary ability makes it really effective in humid or light rainy conditions as well as when you are working up a sweat.
Not all modern synthetic fabrics have this ability but those that do can be highly effective.
Some synthetics can be both breathable, allowing moisture to wick away, keeping you dry from the inside and at the same time have waterproof abilities that keep you dry from the outside too in a heavy downpour.
Check out our guide on the Best Base Layers for Hiking for our top merino wool and synthetic base layer picks.
Ability to Stay Fresh
This is an important consideration when all you want to do is smell the freshness of the great outdoors and not the pungent odours of your pits!
Merino wins hands down in this department (or should that be arms up?) It has natural anti-bacterial properties, which stop their growth, allowing sweat to be absorbed into the wool without any unpleasant odours.
Perfect for when all you want to do is think about where you are going to find your next challenge and not where your next laundry or shower facilities are.
Some synthetics undergo special treatments to make them odour resistant. Although they work to a degree, they are limited in comparison to merino and there are concerns that the chemicals used are detrimental to the environment.
For those who prioritise ethical practices, check out Brass Monkey’s Base Layer – it’s 100% ethically farmed merino wool and a great piece of kit!
So everyone knows wool shrinks in the wet – right?… Right! But merino wool is better than other wools at repelling water because of its lanolin content and it can absorb a lot of water without even feeling wet.
But its still wool!
On the other hand, millions has gone into researching fabrics that can withstand extreme weather conditions and companies have patented their own designer synthetics which are extremely waterproof.
If you are looking for the most effective waterproof layer, then go with the scientifically engineered synthetics. They are specially formulated to keep you dry and repel water meaning they dry faster too.
Texture and Warmth
You can’t beat the feel of merino wool. It has super fine fibres which give it a very lightweight and soft feel.
These fine fibres can also reduce the itchiness that many people associate with traditional wool, making it very comfortable to wear directly against your skin.
Merino has the natural ability to regulate body temperature preventing you from overheating. The wool is made up of small air pockets that draw excess heat away from the body while retaining heat within the fibres to keep a constant body temperature.
It’s good at keeping you warm when it’s cold outside and cool when it’s hot outside. The Icebreaker Oasis Crew Base Layer is a great example of 100% merino wool gear.
Many synthetics feel great to the touch and are superb at keeping you warm but don’t necessarily have both properties in the same synthetic.
Some can leave you feeling warm but clammy, so it’s best to choose wisely when you’re going down the synthetic route and remember, you get what you pay for.
A superb synthetic example, built for cold weather is the Helly Hansen Lifa Merino ½ Zip Base Layer.
Care & Maintenance
We might shy away from wool products because of the faff of how to wash them. The majority of Merino products are machine washable and some can even be tumble-dried but it’s really important to check the label.
The advantage of merino is it won’t need to be washed that often but when it does, keep it simple.
Warm water, no fabric softeners and flat-dry and you will have a product that will last many an adventure.
So synthetics are a lot less complicated?… Not necessarily.
Most high-tech synthetics have coatings and treatments that will become ineffective when washed with your normal attire or fabric softeners, so reading the label and treating with special care is just as much a concern with synthetics as with merino.
Although thankfully, garments can be re-proofed with products like Nikwax.
Water repellent synthetics also might be so good at repelling water that they don’t get a good soaking in the machine, so pre-soaking and addressing particular stains before they go in the washing machine might be necessary.
Conclusively, both merino and synthetic will need to be treated with care and attention.
Merino is an outstanding allrounder. On the other hand, synthetics can be engineered to produce amazing properties.
In a nutshell, Merino wool is:
- A great insulator
- Relatively waterproof
- Ethically produced
- Recyclable and Biodegradable.
Technology often takes its cues from nature and synthetics are no exception. They can be high-performance fabrics depending on which ones you choose.
- Super durability
- Can be engineered to perform incredibly well in any of the areas that merino is appreciated for.
That being said, perhaps there is something intrinsically human that makes us want to wear natural products when it’s viable to do so.
The reassuring thing is we have a choice of the best of both worlds and there’s no doubt that merino can compete really well with whatever man has to throw at it.
See you on the mountain.