Merino Maximized

Wool takes its next step with the rise of blended fabrications

Martin Vilaboy
Sheep Industry News Contributor

The advantages of 100 percent wool garments are well-documented and nothing short of impressive, particularly when next to the skin. Proven out in a multitude of laboratory tests and anecdotal accounts, wool has shown to have superior thermal properties; able to maintain the wearer’s comfort in cold, warm and wet conditions; is highly effective at moisture vapor absorption; is naturally flame-retardant due to is high “limiting oxygen index;” offers UV protection ratings of UPF 30 or better, according to research from German dermatologist; is naturally anti-microbial and anti-static; and even resists staining due to its protective waxy coating.

Oh yeah, and let’s not forget that wool is a sustainable and recyclable component, as well, while fine-micron Merino wool has all but buried the association between wool and itchiness.

The impressive list of properties, however, hasn’t halted humans in their ever-present quest to improve upon nature. As wool has made its recent resurgence in popularity the last several years, “100 percent Merino wool” has become a premium selling point, at least when it comes to base layer, active next-to-skin garments and hosiery. Very few fibers can match Merino across its many qualities in these types of applications.

Still, during the last few seasons, there’s been a decided growth in the availability of wool blends. At first it was mostly wool mixed with of pinch of elastane or similar fiber to improve a garments stretch and recovery. Next came a tad of nylon mixed in for durability. The construction choices have grown to include a wide mix of wool blends, including both synthetic and other natural fibers, both basic and branded components.

Indeed, familiar industry component brands such as Biophyl, drirelease, Cocona, Polygiene and Tencel, among others, now have wool blend stories to tell. Powerhouse CORDURA, for its part, is currently working with its strategic authorized mills to develop wool/nylon “6,6” blends designed to bring together all the benefits of wool with the enhanced durability of nylon “6,6,” reports Cindy McNaull, global CORDURA brand and marketing director. “Look for more to come in 2014,” says McNaull.

Concept III, meanwhile, recently announced that it is working with Australian supplier Merino State to bring a large assortment of new and innovative wool knits and blends to the North American market, including wool combinations with Tencel, dri-release polyester, modal, Polygiene treatment, organic cotton, Primaloft and silk.

Much of the drive, not surprisingly, is due to economics. With the premium selling point of “100 percent wool” comes a premium price, which somewhat limits the markets and types of brands wool can penetrate or the mainstream marketability of wool’s advantages.

Most of the 100 percent wool textiles sold by Concept III, for example, run between $13 and $16 per yard, says David Parkes, company founder and CEO.

“That normally means you are looking at a retail price that is more than $100 for a shirt,” says Parkes.

That $120 shirt is fine for better outdoor or golf brands, for example, “but when it comes to the hunting market, for instance, some customers will pay $120, but most of them are looking for a better price point,” he continues.

A wool-polyester blend, meanwhile, depending on the mixture, can run between $8 and $9 per yard, says Parkes. That’s likely why Cabelas began working with wool-polyester blends within its private label apparel collection, while wool apparel brand Icebreaker recently announced its first camouflage collection of hunting and fishing apparel and accessories featuring wool blended with synthetics and cotton.

“A lot of outdoor brands, while they recognize the benefits of wool, they also need a $69 to $99 price point,” Parkes continues.

Not that blending always has such a positive impact on cost. While it’s true that in the original state, a kilogram of wool fiber can be five to 10 times more expensive than a kilogram of plastic pellets, explains David Harms, a product development and materials specialist for SmartWool, “washable wool blended yarns are specialized items, typically custom spun by the best/most technical wool spinners,” says Harms. “And often your fiber savings are largely offset by the need for increased processing, such as double dye cycles using one type of dye for the wool and another dye for the other fiber.”

In cases such as this, the drivers toward wool blends become design flexibility and amped up performance qualities, says Parkes. “In the outdoor space, brands always want to talk performance,” says Parkes. “With the blends, they still maintain the performance attributes of wool but can offer some additional performance features in a presentation.”

Sure, wool is thermally efficient when wet and is adept at absorbing water vapor. It evolved to allow sheep to survive and thrive in the open elements, after all. But add a little dri-release, and it ups the moisture management proposition for brands and their customers. Even better, wool blended with polyester still maintains the garments antimicrobial properties.

Newer spinning and knitting techniques, meanwhile, have made wool more durable, effectively reducing the loose fibers that lead to piling and premature wear. But mix in a pinch of the proven power of CORDURA nylon, for instance, and a pair of cozy wool sock lasts that much longer.

Indeed, the blending in of synthetics such as nylon, polyester and acrylic adds a number of benefits to wool garments, explains Harms, including reduced drying times; the ability to apply more treatment options, such as wicking or DWR; increased bulk with lighter weights; more visual appeal through cross-dyeing; and stability or shrink resistance.

“Even if using machine-washable wool fibers to prevent felting, you still have to worry about tension/relaxation shrinkage,” explain Harms. “This is especially true in lightweight fabrics.”

Synthetic fibers tend to melt and heat-set during fabric finishing, says Harms, “which helps stabilize the fabric.”

At the same time, the blending of viscose fibers such as Tencel and Rayon or an organic fiber such as cotton can provide wool garments with a different drape or smoother handfeel, all while maintaining the marketing message of sustainability and “100 percent natural.”

Of course, as with most textile decisions, whether to blend or not to blend and the ratio of wool to alternate fiber is determined ultimately by the end use.

“For a product like base layer for skiing, where insulation is top priority, you want the wool content to be high,” says Harms.

But for a t-shirt for running or hiking in warm weather, lowering the wool content and blending to increase durability, stability and achieve lighter weight can be appropriate.”

So while some may be inclined to see blends as little more than cheaper versions of “100 percent merino wool” garments, the reality is that these new wool fabrications are bringing the performance properties and capabilities of nature’s most impressive fiber to new markets and new applications.

“We use very fine, high-grade wool,” says Harms of SmartWool. “However, wool fibers are still a lot thicker than what are available in synthetic fibers.

Blending with other fibers allows for using finer yarns, which opens up more options in fabric structure and weight.”

That may not be all good news to wool purists. But for the rest us, it’s not very often that a reduction in cost has the potential to result in an increase of performance.

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