Over the ages, nature has helped evolve the best solutions for survival in the very animals that live off the land. Every species must adapt to it’s environment and find a way to stay warm in the coldest environments. So when you are looking for the warmest fibers on the planet, it makes sense to look at animals that survive in the coldest, nastiest environments on the planet. The one domestic animal that survives at the highest altitudes, experiences the biggest temperature changes, and endures constant moisture is the sheep. Sheep are purpose bred to survive in the highlands and grow a fiber that is natures miracle to mankind. The wool fiber truly is an amazing thing to behold once you really study it on it’s deepest levels. And I definitely consider myself a wool dork.
Check out this diagram of the breakdown of whats actually in a woolen fiber. Then it all begins to make sense on why this fiber truly is the king of all fibers for cold wet weather. As outdoorsmen, we tend to be in wet cold weather when pursuing our passions in the wilderness. The real difference between wool and other synthetic options is performance when wet, durability, fire resistance, and the anti-bacterial properties. The real problem with synthetic fibers is that over time they will begin to stink and there is never a good way to wash clothes in very cold weather. You don’t encounter the same issues with wool and I’ve owned my WeatherWool anorak for over a year and wear it on average three days a week and it doesn’t smell.
Lanolin, the wool fibers secret?
The real key thing that separates wool from many other fibers that are available is that it is coated with lanolin and each type of wool has different amounts of it. I’ll let Wikipedia define exactly what lanolin is.
Lanolin (from Latin lāna ‘wool’, and oleum ‘oil’), also called wool wax or wool grease, is a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals. Lanolin used by humans comes from domestic sheep breeds that are raised specifically for their wool. Historically, many pharmacopoeias have referred to lanolin as wool fat (adeps lanae); however, as lanolin lacks glycerides (glycerol esters), it is not a true fat. Lanolin primarily consists of sterol esters instead. Lanolin’s waterproofing property aids sheep in shedding water from their coats. Certain breeds of sheep produce large amounts of lanolin. There is an inverse correlation between wool fiber diameter and lanolin content.
A little known fact about winter camping is that it is essential to have an oil coating on your skin to stay warmer. That can be done in two different ways, either by build up of the skins natural oils over time or the by rubbing your skin with natural oils. Either will produce a similar result, though putting natural oil on your skin is more hygenic than natural oils, its not sustainable in the field long term. I always tell instructor course students before long stays in the cold, that they should not take showers and allow the oil to build up on their skin to protect them. And it’s definitely key to make sure you aren’t taking hot showers because that will de-acclimatize your skin to the cold conditions around you. In fact, getting in cold water can help you acclimatize your skin to very cold conditions and will cause a rush of blood to your skin. It helps you build that natural comfortable cold you get from a long time in the woods in winter. And like the oils that protect our skin, the lanolin in the wool protects the fiber.
Different types of Wool Available?
Alpaca- I’ve used Alpaca wool for years and it has some amazing properties. Alpaca socks are hands down some of the warmest socks I’ve ever worn in my life and I still prefer them for many things. But the main problem I’ve had with it is durability issues. You can’t hike long distances in these socks without wearing a hole in them quick. There also isn’t a lot of options on the market right now to even purchase Alpaca wool clothing or socks. The fiber just isn’t used that much by American companies for durability issues, so that limits the products you could hope to purchase.
Yak Wool- This is something new to the market and hasn’t really been utilized much yet. There is one company that I recently purchased some base layers from that I haven’t used in the field yet that is making yak wool products. Kora is making a revolutionary new Yak wool that is suppose to be much warmer and more durable than other fibers to date. It makes sense considering Yak’s are exposed to the siberian tundra and the worst winter conditions on the planet as their daily life. But none of this has been substantiated in field testing yet and since they are the only company I’m aware of offering these products. It makes your selection extremely limited!
Merino- The most used type of wool on the planet is merino wool by a landslide. One of the reasons is that it is a commonly kept domestic animal and have been raised for generations by farmers. These sheep have survived in all types of conditions to high mountain fields to low land wet weather areas. They are one of the best overall fibers you can choose from for several reasons. It is a thinner, softer, and more workable fiber that can be processed into tougher outer garments or soft undergarments to wear next to the skin. In essence, its one of the more versatile wool fibers and their is a huge plethora of products to choose from on the market. Almost anything you can think of can be had in this wool fiber.
Rambouillet Merino- This is a big upgrade from the standard merino wool and rambouillet are bred in order to produce the highest quality wool fiber you can get. With the main goal in mind being performance in the elements and softness against the skin. WeatherWool is the only brand using this material and they only choose the top 1% of the top 1% of any merino wool available. There purchase costs for this fiber are 5 times higher than any other type of merino available to date. In fact, this material wasn’t really available before WeatherWool came along and Ralph Dimeo is a pioneer of it. With the sole goal of building a garment that performs flawlessly in any environment, looks good, and is comfortable to wear. Because lets be honest, if the wool is itchy and scratchy, you’re less likely to wear it. Finding high quality wool that you can wear directly on your skin is difficult, meaning you’ll have to wear warm base layers to keep your skin away from it. And that means you might get to hot and makes the garment less flexible for use in the field. This is my favorite wool so far by a landslide and I’ve owned all the competitions stuff. If you have an interest in learning more about the WeatherWool fabric and the tedious process of selection they use then visit: WeatherWool Fabric
Mouton- Mouton is French for sheep. In the fur trade, Mouton refers to an extremely select pelt of a lamb that has evolved to offer some remarkable properties to the outdoorsman.
Here is an excerpt from WeatherWools fabric page:
“Like all WeatherWool components, our Mouton is pure American. Americans have very little appetite for the meat of adult sheep. Virtually all sheep that are raised for meat in the USA are processed as lambs at about one year old. The pelts of all these lambs are used. Those pelts that are of the very highest quality; less than 1% of all pelts, are selected for processing into Mouton. Mouton was originally developed as an alternative to wild furs such as beaver and seal.
There are several steps in the creation of a Mouton Fur. First, the lamb must grade out to ‘Mouton potential’. Only one in one hundred lambs will have the dense, soft, and uniform fleece necessary for Mouton. When the raw pelt is shipped to the tannery, it is graded again, and about 15% of the Mouton candidates are rejected at this point. Acceptable pelts are tanned, then heat treated to make the wool fibers relatively water-resistant and straight, and extremely soft and glossy. The fleece is sheared to a uniform length of 5/8 inches (1.6 cm) and dyed. Our favorite color is a rich BROWN, but BLACK, WHITE and GRAY are also available. Wool, and therefore Mouton as well, is considered by the medical profession to be hypoallergenic. Mouton cannot be washed, because of the leather, but does resist soiling fairly well. If necessary, it can be cleaned by professionals who launder furs.”
Interesting fact about Mouton and sheeps pelt jackets is they were worn by World War 2 bombers. The guys flying at the highest altitudes, with the windows opening and blaring machine guns under Japanese fire, chose to use sheeps pelts and leather jackets. Why is that? Warmth when wet, the leather stops the wind, and good breathability under tense conditions. And all these mouton clothing options from WeatherWool are just a modern and elegant version of those. They can be worn in the arctic circle or in the finest restaurants because of their beauty and comfort. You might think they are overpriced, but there is really no mark up on this product. The company makes almost nothing for their efforts, but Weatherwool is committed to making the highest quality garments you can get, regardless if they make much on it or not. And I can tell you from personally wearing these mouton items, that they are hands down the warmest garment I’ve ever put on.
What is wool not good for?
There is no one tool option for outdoor clothing and each item you purchase should be well thought out and something you’ll wear regularly. And as always, I’m a buy once cry once kind of guy, so always buy the best you can afford. As survivalists, we choose wool because of it’s wet weather performance, warmth under the wettest conditions, durability, fire resistance, and long term hygiene benefits in the field. That being said, wool is the heaviest and least packable of all the products available. It is also much heavier when wet than almost any other garment out there. Its not recommended for long hiking expeditions, where speed and staying lightweight is the key. It is however the king of camping and any kind of sedentary outdoor usage. Unless are you choosing lightweight performance hiking wool products, you’ll find most wool products have limited uses for people moving long distances. But the upside, is the main outer wool clothing you use can be worn under almost any temp conditions and you don’t have to put it in a backpack or worry about shedding it much. So packability becomes less of an issue when you use wool base layers and proper choice of outer garments.
I’m a big believer in mixing fibers to combine the best of both worlds. My favorite non wool clothing brand is by far and away Fjallraven outdoor clothing, and I like too wear Fjallraven Vidda Pro Pants with wool under garments and wool jackets. The pants are the best hiking pants I’ve ever used, they shed water easily, and dry even faster than nylon does. Combine these pant options with wool outer garments and base layers and I promise you that you’ll love them. Lightweight, packable, tough, and they have the best fit and tailoring I’ve ever seen on any pants.
So my philosopy on outdoor clothing is to mix and match these fibers for optimal performance for your specific outdoor trip. But just remember that wool is always your fall back clothing or you base foundation. Base layers, socks, wool caps, scarfs, underwear, tshirts, and much more are available in wool today. Use the wool products for the areas close to your skin. And then combine the wool with fjallraven pants, goretex shells, ponchos, and other garments that compliment the wool for each specific trip you take. Mix and match different materials for optimal performance. Just remember there is no one tool option, but if there was one, it would be wool.
Difference in Design?
So one of the big problems with most wool designs is that many manufacturers use cotton in their apparel. Cotton stitching, cotton liners, and some even use cotton inside the actual wool material. That isn’t a big issue until you get wet. I’ll give you a for instance, the Columbia wool clothing I own has a cotton lining in the hood of the jacket, and if I was to fall into a creek or get rained on that cotton would begin to freeze. And once that cotton freezes, it eliminates the benefits of having the wool in the first place. Remember that we choose wool because of it’s wet and cold weather performance. So ask yourself why a huge majority of the manufacturers out there would have large amounts of cotton in their apparel. Why? Because its WAY WAY cheaper to do it that way for one. But the sole purpose for adding liners is because the wool fabric they use is so scratchy that it will irritate any skin it touches. So why buy rough wool when you can have soft wool with much better performance? The only reason to buy rough wool is if you just can’t afford wool that is soft. Which is fine because budget is the single most important factor when purchasing something like this. Some guys will never be able to afford the higher quality performance products, so they should stick with surplus stuff and not feel bad about it all. But if you have the money, and if you travel to places where the cold can kill you, then get the best you can. I promise when your warm at deer camp and everyone else is freezing their ass off, I promise you’ll then begin to appreciate the purchase. And the big difference with WeatherWool, is that you can wear your hunting equipment EVERYWHERE up to 80 degrees.
Price for Premium Wools?
What most people fail to understand is there is a big difference in rough run of the mill production wool and a high grade premium option. If you want real wool and the performance of it, there is no getting around opening your pocket book for a big hit. Whether it’s buying base layers or a fullweight jacket, they aren’t going to be cheap. I recently paid almost $300 for just some baselayers in Yak wool, and that is only one layer in the wool options. If you’re going to have an entire wool outfit, there isn’t any way around spending a $1000 or more unless you go for recycled or mixed blend wool options that don’t perform as well. And I’m of the mindset, that if you’re going spend a lot of money, I’d rather spend a little more and get something that will last a lifetime. The only cheap option available for 100% wool is thrift shops and european military surplus, which can be found in abundance all over the web. And I’m not going to say the performance of these items are bad because they are good for what they are. But they will all universally feel scratchy on the skin, sizing can be difficult, and performance has improved incredibly since the invention of those older garments. But those garments are a testament to how long wool clothing lasts. It doesn’t matter where you go to find wool, it’s expensive everywhere. The cheapest wool product available in our industry is the Lester River Wool Anorak and I own one of them. It’s an okay piece of equipment, but it’s a cheap and scratchy military wool blanket of the lowest quality. It will get the job done in cold weather, but it won’t be a piece of equipment you wear often. Whereas high end WeatherWool is a piece of clothing you’ll wear year round to all your life events. It’s comfortable to wear in temps up to 80 degrees because of how well it breathes. You can wear it directly onto your skin with no base layers, unlike most other wool. So all in all, I’m a component for spending more for wool equipment and have something I’ll pass onto my kids. Versus something that will sit in my closet most of the time.
Wool is natures answer to all things cold and wet. It is the base fiber to build all your other fibers upon. Learn to mix and match fibers for different performance in different environments. Remember that you always wear wool socks no matter the climate hot or cold. Wool next to the skin will help the most of any fiber with long term hygiene issues. And weatherwool garments are the top choice for no scratchy, high performance wool outwear. I personally own most of the major companies wool products available and choose weatherwool hands down over the other guys. If you’re interested in purchasing some WeatherWool gear, click the links below or visit:
WeatherWool Our Fabric: https://weatherwool.com/pages/the-weatherwool-difference
WeatherWool Anorak: https://survivalgear.us/collections/weatherwool/products/weatherwool-anorak
WeatherWool Pants: https://survivalgear.us/collections/weatherwool/products/weatherwool-pants