What’s all this fuss about natural fibres, and do they really give you a leg up in the wild? Jono headed out to hike Kitty’s Gorge, dressed top to toe in icebreaker merino, to test the theory.
Since its inception, icebreaker has made it their mission to eliminate unnecessary plastic from performance apparel and create a layering system that’s made up of 100% natural fibres. In fact, in 2022, they took a step further towards their goal by using 95% merino wool and plant-based fibres across their range, up from 91% in 2021.
It’s safe to say that from its performance to its impact on the environment, once you go natural with your adventure apparel, you’ll never go back. But why?
Let’s Start From the Top
Having come down with some acute cases of sweaty back while sporting synthetic and cotton tops on my hiking trips in the past, comfort and breathability are high on the list when choosing the material of my hiking tees. This is the first way natural fibre, such as merino wool, separates itself from the flock.
Merino wool is nothing like those itchy wools your grandma used to knit. It’s made up of fibres that start at around 10-12 microns, creating a soft and comfortable feel in a tee that never gets old. For comparison, human hairs are around 60 microns, so that should give you an idea just of how fine those wool fibres are!
It’s these ultrafine fibres that also allow merino sheep to naturally deal with temperatures ranging from -10°C up to +30°C. The wool fibres also inherently wick moisture and absorb up to 35% of their weight before feeling wet. This natural insulation and breathability mean that merino apparel has the ability to translate across seasons and outdoor activities, giving tops made from 100% merino incredible versatility.
Although spring has just sprung in Western Australia, the combination of icebreaker’s Merino Quantum III Long Sleeve Zip Hoodie and Merino 150 Tech Lite II Short Sleeve T-Shirt would be perfect for any hike with an early start before shedding the mid layer as the day heats up. Their decision to include thumb loops to keep your hands warm pays serious dividends for adventures which end after sundown.
Read More: icebreaker Tech Lite II T-shirt Review
Reducing the Stench Factor & Increasing Durability
Spending time outdoors and working up a sweat come hand in hand, and those cartoon-like squiggly lines illustrating stench leaving your body quickly follow.
Merino wool is odour-resistant largely due to the presence of lanolin, a natural wax that keeps it from becoming wet quickly. This, coupled with the wool’s ability to help regulate body temperature by wicking moisture provides both a cooling effect and helps to minimise the buildup of the odour-causing germs that cause that stench.
It goes without saying that I found this feature most advantageous, particularly in my Merino Anatomica Boxers and Merino Hike+ Light Crew Natural Summit Socks. Though the thought of sniffing your hiking socks after putting in some serious steps sounds repulsive, I decided to do so after my 16km hike and was pleased with the distinct absence of any serious funk.
To hit this point home, I worked in the same office as We Are Explorers Publisher Timbo while he wore his Merino Cool-Lite™ Sphere Short Sleeve Crew for a week straight. His lack of overwhelming BO on Day 7 was astonishing.
Merino wool’s ability to extend more than 30% of its length without breaking combined with its moisture-wicking properties minimises the ability of moisture to degrade the fabric, making it more durable, even compared to other natural fibres such as cotton. This means fewer washes for them in the long run, but be careful to ensure proper care for your merino pieces to safeguard their long life span.
The lightweight nature of merino means small pinholes in the fabric can be created after a few washes on the wrong setting in a commercial machine or even by bugs such as silverfish or moths (ew!) when stored for longer periods of time.
How Do Your Clothes Affect the Environment?
It’s 2023 and consumers like myself are becoming more aware of the environmental costs of what they buy. There are many ways a shift to natural fibres can help the world around us.
Did you know that a single piece of synthetic clothing can shed up to 700,000 plastic fibres per wash? That’s microplastic heading directly into our oceans to be consumed by the animals who call the big blue home.
Essentially, with every load of washing that includes clothes made from synthetic materials, we’re introducing plastic pollutants into the oceans and back into our food chain. Food for thought hey? By simply switching to clothes made from natural fibres, we can immediately reduce our impact on the environment and ourselves.
icebreaker also prides itself on ethically sourcing its merino, working closely with its growers in New Zealand to improve their practices, year on year. They also work with the New Zealand Merino Company to incorporate regenerative practices throughout the growing process. Think rotational grazing for the sheep and offsetting carbon to ensure they work with nature, rather than against it, to continuously improve human, animal and environmental outcomes.
They take it one step further with their yearly Transparency Report, covering everything from how they manage their supply chain and detailing their goals for the future. One thing I particularly love is their commitment to protecting native animals such as the Kakī, an endangered bird species. By fencing off certain areas in their grower’s farms, they’re able to provide the much-needed environment for the bird to breed and thrive.
How New Technology Has Helped Create a Seamless Transition to Natural
Manufacturers have traditionally relied on synthetic membranes to create breathable waterproof jackets that prevent rain from passing through, but new advances in technology have allowed brands like icebreaker to weave natural fibres into the mix with almost no compromise in performance.
For example, they’re able to prepare the wool fibres to create a water-repellent rain jacket that ticks all the boxes by utilising their Optim Spinning Technology. In this process, fibres of the wool are pre-stretched before being spun into yarn and woven into fabric. This stretch is then released before applying a PFC-free, environmentally-friendly DWR to produce a dense and functional result.
Though it’s true that they can’t call it a fully waterproof product as yet, it holds all of the built-in features that we know and love from merino wool while providing a natural option to keep the rain at bay.
I wore the lightweight ZoneKnit Merino Shorts on my hike, which incorporate the merino with a wood fibre made from sustainably sourced eucalyptus called Tencel, creating an innovative fabric they call Cool-Lite.
icebreaker then used body mapping to place breathable mesh where it’s needed most. Called ZoneKnit, the tech was so nice they had to incorporate it twice by integrating additional ZoneKnit underwear into the package (pun intended).
With all of these features considered, the merino shorts might be my favourite piece I added to my wardrobe. To say that the technology behind them allows your skin to breathe well might undersell just how well they perform on the trails.
Time to Move to Natural?
Though adding merino products to your adventure wardrobe may hurt your pocket in the short run, investing in some quality gear made from natural fibres that’ll stand the test of time is beneficial both functionally and for the future of our planet. If you ask me, it’s about time we reduce the use of petrochemical synthetics when there are such great natural alternatives available.