Natural Fibres, Whatever Wicking Is, And The Power Of The Hike

by: Hannah Cooke | 3 weeks ago | Features

Hannah Cooke on the Kepler Track.

I went to Iceland a few years ago and was given a hand-knitted, traditional sweater. This was thrilling. While there, I had become obsessed with the Icelandic cool-girl style: oversized, textured knits, vintage 501’s, battered Doc Martens, a slouchy army jacket and the casual confidence of someone who didn’t need a puffy jacket in sub zero temperatures.

Unfortunately, the jersey had the texture of steel wool, and as a sensitively skinned gal, I knew that this would not go well. Growing up with eczema, I was always swaddled in cotton and smooth-textured textiles that wouldn’t make me itchy. Icelandic wool comes from tough, winter hardened Icelandic sheep, who came to Iceland via Norway in the 9th century. Basically, they’re viking sheep from one of the most extreme climates in the world. Their wool is all about staying warm, dry and alive. They don’t care about my sensitive skin.

I washed the icelandic jersey in vinegar. Conditioned it. Did everything Wiki-how told me to do to soften the wool up so I could live my scandi-cool girl dream. But the jersey remained stubbornly scratchy.

That’s the challenge of wool for sensitively skinned people: it can feel a bit rashy. You mitigate it with layers. A light, long sleeved t-shirt underneath a jersey, a silk scarf to provide a buffer for sensitive necks. But it’s not like I would ever wear wool as a first layer.

Until I wore the same outfit for four days.

Fast forward to 2021. Swap a tiny, isolated island at the top of the world for a tiny, isolated island at the bottom of the world.

I joined Well Made Clothes co-founder, Courtney and Ovna Ovich designer, Marina, on the Kepler Track, a four day hike in the South Island of Aotearoa. We were novice hikers, with no gear or experience. Universal advice was: only bring one outfit, and make that outfit entirely high quality merino wool. I was worried. How could I, who had not been able to wear wool on my skin without breaking out into a rash, manage four days and three nights wearing one (sweaty, smelly) outfit merino wool?

I needn't have worried. My skin was great on the hike. Better than it usually is. What happened?

Fibres so fine they bend, rather than scratch.

Unlike the viking wool of Iceland, merino wool is soft - really soft. Merino sheep came to Australasia via balmy, warm Spain, where the sheep, I imagine, enjoyed a slightly less intense lifestyle than their Scandinavian cousins. The wool is soft because it is so fine. A single fibre of merino wool is 17 microns - ⅓ the diameter of human hair. It bends, rather than scratches, when it touches skin. For context, the wool from my Icelandic jersey is probably around 27 - 30 microns. But it gets better.

Apparently, they have now proven that superfine merino is good for your skin:

Woolmark (who as “Big Wool”, would have a vested interest in getting people into Merino) say it even helps people with eczema. Soft, super-fine merino, they say, has been proven in several dermatological tests to “buffer the micro-climate between the fabric and the skin.” Because wool can “absorb and release twice as much moisture vapour as cotton, and 30 times as much as polyester,” it helps keep the humidity on your skin (read: sweat) under control. And because superfine merino is, well, super fine, people with eczema or sensitive skin can wear it as a first layer.

Normalise merino at the gym and in other places.

I’ve gone all in on merino. Gym gear? Fuck yes. Why wear gross, sweaty, clingy polyester or cotton (aka the world’s dirtiest crop) that starts to reek when you could work out in ultra-fine, ultra-durable, sweat wicking, odor-resistant, wash and wear merino? Genius textile engineers have blended merino with lyocell or polyester to make sure you feel really comfortable. Start with these shorts from McIntyre Australia and a lightweight top from Icebreaker.

Underwear? Yes (but please, someone, start making cool, rather than simply hyperfunctional merino knickers). Bra? Yes, a pleasingly Base-Range esque one from Icebreaker. These bralets are also very nice.

But what about the rest of my clothes?

Merino knitwear has a real “outdoors wear” reputation, and it can be hard to find brands that do great colours, inclusive sizing, and don’t slap giant logos or birds all over otherwise perfectly lovely designs.

Luckily, Merino is also sustainable, and therefore Well Made Clothes is stacked with options.

Standard Issue’s merino tulle skivvy is a dream. This cardigan is a classic. I have my eye on this perfect, sage green crew neck from Woolerina. I’ll keep my crew-neck Kom jersey from Ovna Ovich forever. Arnsdorf’s colours and styles are fresh and directional. And McIntyre Australia’s dresses - indeed, their entire range - are straight up chic. I want this tracksuit ready for my next lazy Sunday. Or the next snap-lockdown. Whatever comes first.

You can also find high quality merino in op-shops, so there’s no reason why you can’t dip your toes in the merino pool with a low-risk second hand investment first. Because it’s durable, it really does last forever. And if you buy a brand new piece of merino, be picky, and make sure you invest in something you love: you’re going to wear it for a long, long time. 

We love Merino wool turtlenecks:

And here are some of our other favourite Merino wool pieces:

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