Made from Merino The Greening of Underwear, One Sheep at a Time

Companies like Patagonia and Helly Hansen revolutionized outdoor wear when they introduced sweat-wicking, quick-drying polyester base layers for adventurers and other athletes back in the 1970s. Even though such undergarments, still de riguer among most outdoor athletes, are recyclable, their petroleum-based roots means they’re hardly eco-friendly. What’s more, synthetic layers get extra stinky when comingled with bodily odors. Luckily, there is an alternative that performs as well or better and doesn’t carry any environmental or olfactory stigma: Merino wool. This natural fiber, derived from Merino sheep in New Zealand, is soft next to the skin, wicks sweat and dries out with the best of them, can be machine washed (laying flat to dry) and is naturally odor-resistant. And since Merino can be easily spun into different weights, it can be used for a wide variety of clothing and climates, making it the ultimate layering fabric.

Merino wool, Credit: Bernard Spragg.NZ, FlickrCC

Top to bottom: Patagonia Merino 2 T-shirt; Ibex Wool Boy Short; SmartWool Microweight Long Johns.

One of the leaders in Merino-wear is Vermont-based Ibex Outdoor Clothing. Unhappy with synthetic base layers that made him “sweat like a gorilla,” cross-country skiing enthusiast John Fernsell teamed up with sheep farmer and mountaineer Peter Helmetag to start the company in 1997. “Everything looked the same and didn’t work,” says Fernsell. “It was all either Gore-Tex or polyester fleece.” The duo set out to find a better choice. With its inherent functionality, style, comfort and sustainability, Merino emerged the victor.

Getting Cozy Down Under

Because Merino responds so well to movement and temperature changes, it’s a perfect choice for underwear and winter layers like long johns. Ibex sells several different cuts of Merino wool undergarments, including its Balance line of underwear for men (briefs for $32, boxers for $45) and women (thongs or briefs for $25, boy shorts for $29 and a range of bras from $35-$69). The company also offers D-Lux ($45) and Zepher ($52) boxers for men, as well as Zepher long johns ($80) for men and women.

In addition to its performance-caliber socks (another natural fit for Merino), the company SmartWool also makes highly regarded Merino undergarments, such as the mens’ Microweight Boxer Brief ($45) and three long johns for men and women ($60-$75) of varying weights.

Patagonia has also jumped on the wooly undergarment wagon. The company’s Merino Performance Base Layers line (including T-shirts, long-sleeve crews, tank tops and long john bottoms, all available in four different thicknesses, from $65-$99) incorporates wool from three New Zealand ranches capable of producing fiber to an 18.5 micron fineness—or about one-fifth as thick as human hair. Patagonia’s buttery-soft Merino also makes the green grade, with stringent environmental and humane standards for stock-raising (including a diet of natural grass and spring water) and a low head-to-hectare ratio.

The Sheep Side of the Story

Ibex, SmartWool and Patagonia can all make big claims about the sustainability of the Merino wool they use because each company buys it from an accredited member of Zque. Launched in 2005 by the New Zealand Merino Company, Zque certifies New Zealand’s Southern Alps Merino ranches who adhere to a strict set of sustainable and ethical treatment standards. Upwards of 170 ranches have since been certified as “ethical wool” producers.

“The impetus behind Zque is to show customers that growers walk the talk,” says Gretchen Kane of New Zealand Merino. “The companies like to have proof of product origin. They also like that Zque is audited by a third party.”

With so much going for it, what’s not to like about Merino wool? Some customers complain that it’s not cheap doing the right thing by your undergarments. But Merino converts insist that the rugged material lasts much longer than synthetic or cotton clothing, all with comfort, style and fit. Scratchy old wool has come a long way, baby!