When it comes to base layers, as well as other layers of clothing, more and more outdoor enthusiasts are swearing by merino wool – its qualities are just that convincing. However, uncertainty always rears its ugly little head as soon as the merino garment needs to be washed.
Like down, merino wool is a natural product, and such products are known for being “difficult” to care for. So, many of us have asked ourselves what we’re allowed and not allowed to do with merino garments.
Why merino wool?
The answer is simple: merino wool combines the characteristics of synthetic materials and wool into one without all the flaws.
Merino wool is soft, it will keep you cool when it’s warm and keep you warm when it’s cold, it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t itch, it doesn’t retain much moisture and quickly wicks it away, it retains its shape, it’s easy to wash, it’s lighter than regular wool, it’s a natural fibre, so it’ll grow back, and it doesn’t require any oil for its production.
An attentive reader would probably ask for the catch at this point. It seems a little too good to be true, does it not? But it is! True, that is.
There is a “but”, though. There’s a pretty horrible procedure among merino wool farmers called mulesing, which is – to put it lightly – very unpleasant for merino sheep. You can read more about mulesing-free products in this article.
An increasing number of the leading merino wool manufacturers in the outdoor industry, such as Ortovox or Icebreaker, are dealing with this issue and guarantee that mulesing is not being carried out on their sheep. Some brands, like Ortovox, are even actively involved in creating conditions in which mulesing is not necessary.
Other than that, there’s no catch!
So how do we care for it?
In contrast to its two siblings, conventional wool and down, merino wool is extremely easy to care for and wash.
As individual products can differ, it is always better to read the care instructions provided by the manufacturer.
Here’s a short summary:
Washing merino wool:
Wash the garment in a normal wash cycle between 30°C and 40°C using regular powder or liquid detergent. For merino wool, you don’t need wool detergent. This is intended for conventional wool and can thus damage you merino wool! Don’t use bleach or fabric softener, either!
You should also keep an eye on whether enzymes are used in the detergent. Some wool detergents contain the enzyme protease. This enzyme can break down the protein molecules of the keratin contained in the merino wool.
The result of this is wool erosion, i.e. the frequently observed formation of holes in merino clothing after washing. So if you are not sure whether protease is contained in the wool detergent, it is better to use a PH-neutral mild or functional detergent. These serve the same purpose and prevent the formation of holes in your merino gear.
If you want to wash on the go, you can also use a shampoo. As always, it is advisable not to wash dark and light products together to prevent discolouration. Always close zips before washing and turn printed products inside out, i.e. the print inside out.
Icebreaker explicitly states that they prefer machine wash over hand washing because the latter can enable the build-up of residue, which may cause the garment to produce odours after all.
Do not tumble dry merino garments! Instead, line dry them. Merino usually retains its shape, but it wouldn’t hurt to lay it flat to dry.
How to prevent pilling:
Sometimes shorter fibres work their way to the surface of the fabric. As these shorter fibres make their way to the surface, pesky clumps form. These are known as pills.
Pilling can be prevented by periodically washing your merino product with a coarser fabric, such as jeans. With time, the fabric will improve, as the shorter fibres will be removed before they pill. But, before doing so, make sure that all zips on your jeans are closed.
And what about the smell?
It’s become somewhat of a sport to brag about how long you’ve worn your merino garment without washing it, claiming that “it didn’t even stink after three weeks!” Whether or not it’s an impressive feat not to wash your shirt for three weeks is neither here nor there; the fact is: merino wool is pretty much odour-free.
This is due to the fact that wool fibres work on the human body just as they do on a sheep’s. The wool fibres draw sweat away from the body, absorb it and then release it, so there is no sweat on our skin and thus no odour!
Summary of the instructions
- Use detergent without enzyme protease or
- PH-neutral mild detergent or functional detergent
- Wash at between 30°C and 40°C
- Close zips
- Wash in a washing machine rather than by hand
- Do not put in the dryer
- Prevent pilling by washing with rougher textiles, e.g. jeans.