Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Wool: It's What's For Winter

It was 25 degrees here in the Fahrenheit-loving town of Issaquah yesterday morning (that's -4 for you Celsius people) and while that isn't cold by Minnesota standards, it's cold enough to make a cyclist appreciate things like tires with good traction, hot coffee and warm clothes. Especially warm clothes.

Despite all the developments in clever technical fabrics, wool is still a key material in my wardrobe. Even in warm weather, my favorite jerseys are short-sleeve merino wool but in the winter time I'm usually wearing a long sleeve merino wool base layer with a heavier wool jersey or a thrift-store wool sweater on top of that. The wool isn't really windproof but a thin nylon wind or rain jacket layered over the wool keeps me cozy in a wide range of conditions.

Wool layers are also key to comfortable feet and hands. When I buy shoes I always get a size that can handle a double layer of socks. I've found that two thin wool socks or a thin sock and a thicker one are more comfortable than a single sock. I don't get blisters with the double sock system and on long rides I can swap the inner and the outer socks on the long stretches between laundry stops.

My long-fingered gloves are always wool, either Swiss military surplus wool glove liners or an old pair of Swobo gloves. Depending on conditions I may layer these with conventional padded cycling gloves, nylon over-mitts or GloGlov reflective gloves. Wool is warm even when wet and if my gloves do get soaked, I can quickly wring them out and continue on. Every heavier, integrated glove I've tried eventually soaks with water, becomes cold and then takes forever to dry.

Some wool proponents will tell you that it doesn't stink. In my experience, this isn't quite true. Some synthetic fabrics seem to harbor bacteria and develop an over-powering toxic stench and while it's true that wool doesn't exhibit this noxious property, it's not 100% odor free. The scent of damp wool is distinctive and earthy, what my wife calls the "wet sheep smell." It's not a bad smell and Christine hasn't kicked me out of the house yet. In fact, when I return from my long rides I'll often find that she's taken one of my wool jerseys out of the laundry and settled it next to her on my side of the bed. "I sleep better that way," she explains, "It's cozy."

Wool is cozy. Like hot coffee or a warm bowl of soup, wool is comfort against the cold.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Kent for adding a link to
our website! We are getting lots
of action! So glad to hear you
are still wearing the Glo Glovs.
Have a wonderful holiday season!

Anonymous said...

i've read that to produce merino wool, which you mention wearing, the lambs' flesh is hacked off above the tail without any anesthesia to prevent infection (!!!) by parasite. and, as you can imagine, the wounds do inevitably get infected. An incredibly brutal practice if you ask me (or the lambs). it's called mulesing. look it up, if you're interested in animal welfare and not supporting cruelty with your chosen wardrobe. i'm just assuming that since you're a cyclist, you have a conscience, so just wanted to alert you to this. thanks for listening.

Anonymous said...


I started bike commuting in August, a 22 mi r/t in Portland, OR.

I like the idea of wool, but most of the wool garments I've seen out there must be air dried.

Given that I'm riding five days a week, and prefer to ride in clean clothes, I'm doing quite a bit of laundry. And haven't figured that I've got time for wool.

Are there any wool lines that can be dried on a light setting in the dryer?

Or am I just making too much of this in general?

Kent Peterson said...

All the Smartwool and Superwash wool stuff I have goes right in the regular washing machine and dryer. I also have some thrift store sweaters that were effectively "pre-shrunk" by a previous owner and those go right in the washer and dryer as well.

If you do have a delicate wool garment, you can still run it through the delicate cycle on the washer and then roll it between two cotton towels to wick most of the moisture out of it. It then dries over night.

As for the sheering practices, yeah, you can find lots about it on the web. Here's the wool industry's spin on it:


Now I know there are better people than me out there and damn near everybody makes some choices that somebody else questions. I already shock a lot of people by actually eating animals and by golly I also wear parts of them as well. I also routinely snuff out the lives of fruits and vegetables. But I sure don't have all the answers and I really don't know if it's more cruel to the planet to wear an old wool sweater or a new fleece jacket. But for me it seems, the old wool sweater works better.

DACAT said...

To the Anonymous that was talking about the mulesing. I would recommend that you do some more research. Mulesing has not been in general practise for some years now, also it was put into practice for the health of the animal at the time. It was done to prevent something called fly strike. What this is is when fly lay eggs in the feces that collects in the wool around the anus of the sheep. As those eggs hatch the larva crawls up the bum of the sheep and eats the sheep from the inside out (real humane like). However as I said mulesing has all but been eliminated and a practice called crutching is more generally used. Crutching is where you come in with shears before fly season and cut the wool from around the groin and anus area.
Also as a small farmer of fine Cormo wool sheep (micron of about 18-23) I would recommend people look into supporting US raised wool brands. And US farmers.