Back in my college days, my mother decided to gift me a real wool flannel collared shirt made from a local company in Oregon. Although flannel shirts were popular in the 90’s grunge days, and yes I was a big fan of that era of music, a wool flannel shirt just did not seem to attract the ladies like I would have liked. My shirt stayed in the closet for some time. I guess that is what happens when mommy tries to dress you. It was not until years later when I started taking it out while fishing that I realized that wool was really what it was all cracked up to be, warm and comfortable. I new it was expensive and sometime scratchy, but never really thought about why wool had been used for thousands of years.
Years later, and while spending more days here in the Pacific Northwest on the water during the cold damp days of Winter, Spring and Fall, I started to wonder why we did not see a lot of fishermen wearing wool products. I do remember watching Lani Waller in his Scientific Anglers Mastery Series Steelheading videos back in the 80’s wearing wool, but have not noticed it since then.
With lots of fly fishing manufacturers producing product lines made of light weight breathable synthetics, you would have thought that wool products would have been somewhere in there. Maybe I missed it, but while walking through those high end sporting good stores, you cannot help but see Merino wool socks, gloves and clothing for hikers, rock climbers, cycling and skiing. Realistically, fly fishing clothing from companies like Simms and Patagonia, companies that know their market, have comparable prices to that of companies that produce wool outdoor clothing. But why not wool for fly fishing?
So is there a difference?
Though wool is much different today then the generations before due the use of finer fibers from different breeds of sheep, the term Merino was coined from merino sheep. Today Merino has blended into a term for all fine wool. Unlike the sandpaper feel wool once had, it is now comfortable and stretchy and lacks the pruritic feel it once had.
Wool fibers have a scaly external sheath with bundles of internal fibers within. This is what gives it that itchy feel. These fibers are hydrophobic, thus wicking or repelling moisture away from the fabric. The very internal portion of the fiber is hydrophilic and can absorb moisture when saturated. This moisture however is carried away from the skin when the evaporation process starts due to its fibrous structure and though your cloths may be damp, you will not feel clammy next to your skin. When you warm up and this moisture evaporates you will feel cool.
Synthetic fibers have a more uniform structure, made of polyester or polypropylene (polypro). Where in wool, moisture is held within the fibers, synthetics hold it outside the fibers, speeding up the evaporation process and you get the same cooling effect as with wool, but for not as long since the moisture is held within the fibers in wool. Also with the moisture being outside the fibers, this leads to increased evaporation. You will loose that feeling of weight faster then with wool. The individual synthetic fiber also has an external texture that helps disperse the moisture for evaporation, and with its increased mobility, thus dry faster and keep moisture away from your skin.
Wool does have this interesting feature that synthetics are lacking in; they have antimicrobial qualities due to its protein based material. Thus when you sweat, you do not stink as much. Synthetics have decreased this margin over the years, but they have not closed the gap on wool. When using wool as a baselayer and wearing waders and a shell it is hard not to get that mold and mildew smell associated with the damp nature of the climate we have here in the Pacific Northwest. Wool will help prevent you from retaining those smells after those waders are taken off.
Overall both are great products with different attributes for the outdoorsman. Wool keeps you warm and less clammy on your skin when damp, prevents you from getting B.O. and barbecue. Wool also is flame retardant due to its non-synthetic nature and lack of coatings, more biodegradable and comes from a renewable resource and can keep you cool when it is hot and warm when it is cool. Synthetics dry faster, carry less weight, especially when damp and are slightly less expensive and also keep you cool when it’s hot and warm when it is cool.
For some reason daydreaming while stepping through run after run this winter has made me think about wool vs. synthetics and why my wool Ibex Nomad Hoody felt better then the baselayers I used in the past. It was warm, comfortable, dry and not much more expensive then the other baselayers I wear. Ibex’s Knitty Gritty Fingerless Gloves are pretty badass too. I only wear wool gloves in the winter and this is by far the best pair I own. I am certain to some degree I didn’t stink as much this Winter while wearing wool, but I am sure for once that had something to do with my smell instead of how the fishing went.
Ibex Outdoor Clothing is a Vermont based company that specializes in wool products. They provide high quality outdoor lines for skiing, mountain climbing, cycling and baselayers for any outdoor adventure. In time I am sure they will provide the same for fishing enthusiasts as well. Wool is a unique product that is versatile, comfortable, and warm. The fact that it also comes from a renewable resource and not a petroleum based synthetic is an easy sell for you tree huggers out there. Just remember your fly lines are made of them as well.