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Your guide to the wool revolution

Posted by on November 7th, 2008 at 1:00 pm

Elly and her all-wool outfit-2

This is my most comfortable winter
biking outfit: wool tights, a wool
skirt, and a wool top.
(Photo � J. Maus)

As the urban cycling revolution continues, more people than ever are using bikes to take their kids to school, haul groceries, or go out for a night on the the town.

Thankfully, a quick scan of fashion in the bike lane reveals that the percentage of performance-minded clothing you see out there has declined.

Synthetic apparel, while awesome for some pursuits, isn’t always comfortable, classy, or good for the environment. Synthetics can also be expensive and they’re not always very durable. Cotton quickly becomes soggy if it’s raining or hot, and polyesters are a nightmare.

“The secret to dressing well outdoors is to focus more on keeping warm than on staying dry.”

Many who are new to cycling are hitting the streets in whatever clothes they’ve got (others are getting seriously fashionable). But when you transition from the car-and-umbrella lifestyle to one that involves zooming through all manner of weather on your bike, a few minor adjustments to your wardrobe can make all the difference.

A good jacket and fenders are essential for keeping the worst of the water off; but there’s only so much you (and the scientists behind high tech synthetics) can do.

From Portland-based
Wabi Woolens ($140).

The sad truth is that you are going to get wet no matter what, from rain or from sweat. And as walkers and backpackers have known for centuries, the secret to dressing well outdoors is to focus more on keeping warm than on staying dry.

So what’s the answer? Wool.

Wool keeps you warm, even when it’s wet. It’s comfortable. It’s breathable. It sheds water. It’s a natural fiber. It’s durable. It’s not necessarily expensive, and sometimes very cheap.

Your best resource for wool gear is probably your own closet (I know you’ve got an old sweater in there somewhere!). Your next best resource is your local thrift store. Second hand wool slacks, skirts, and sweaters that are nice enough to wear to a meeting or party are the staples of my winter wardrobe.

Some things, though, you have to buy new.

Wool britches by Sheila Moon ($149).

It’s been a pleasure to see wool knee-length knickers cropping up around town. Sheila Moon (from San Francisco) has some great looking “riding britches” (she makes them for guys too), and a jacket and hats which look good enough to wear off the bike.

Speaking of great-looking, no talk of wool would be complete with mentioning the fabulous caps Portland’s very own Shaun Deller.

Another Portland-based purveyor of fine wool cycling apparel is Wabi Woolens. I’ve yet to try anything from them, but I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews (BikePortland.org profiled Wabi Woolens back in February).

Like your thrift store finds, these pieces are dry clean only. That’s sort of a pain, but wool is sturdy; if you care for them right, they’ll last for years.

There are also a lot of washable wool products available that cut down on the itch factor as well as dry cleaning bills and hassle.

I recently invested in some SmartWool tights, and wear them every day. If you’re shopping around, you might also check out the cotton lined wool tights available at local sock emporium Sock Dreams.

Sauvie Span Rally-10.jpg

As you can see, I love
my Ibex wool hoodie.

Wool socks are a lifesaver on wet winter days, and they make a fine alternative to plastic booties. Remember, your feet may get wet, but they’ll stay warm.

For washable wools with a social conscience, check out Icebreaker, which recently opened a retail store in downtown Portland across the street from Powell’s, and Ibex, whose products are sold locally at Clever Cycles. Both Icebreaker and Ibex use merino wool from New Zealand and offer everything from hats to underwear (and thankfully, both seem fairly zealous about their sourcing).

The folks at Clever Cycles, who really know about this stuff, are hosting Wool Night tonight (Friday, November 7th from 5:30 – 7pm), offering discounts on most of their Ibex stock, a woolens raffle, and a generally festive atmosphere.

Have you joined the wool revolution? What are your likes/dislikes about this marvelous material?


Here’s a list of the companies mentioned in the article:
Wabi Woolens
Sheila Moon
Deller Designs
Smartwool
Icebreaker
Sock Dreams
Ibex

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Kathleen McDade
Guest

Nodding my head up and down all the way. I’m one of those cyclists in regular clothes, and I just picked up a thrift-store wool sweater to be my cycling under-layer. Still working on my outer layers. Wish I could go to Wool Night, darn it!

Kathleen McDade
Guest

Er, no pun intended on that last comment. Oops!

Dave
Guest
Dave

How about a very, very bright jacket over those INVISIBLE earth-toned jersies?
Wool feels better when you are dressed to keep yourself visible, no?

matt picio
Guest

The one problem with wool is that there is a fairly large group of people who are allergic either to wool itself, or to dyes and other chemicals used in the process of making wool clothing. For those people, synthetics are the only real option for cold & wet weather.

Cotton and down are fine as long as they stay dry – when wet they lose almost all their insulating value.

For those who *can* wear wool, though – it is the superior fabric. Merino wool isn’t scratchy at all, and wool tends not to hold odors, so you generally don’t get the “funk” that polyester and other synthetics pick up over time. It’s also much easier to repair if ripped or torn. Wool is well worth the extra cost.

Richard S
Guest
Richard S

Yep. I’m one of those folks who are allergic to wool. I’m going to try some blended fabrics – with the synthetic on the inside.

I really like wool as well, but it makes my back break out.

Scott G.
Guest
Scott G.

Thrift stores around where I live (in NH) don’t seem to have much of the non-itchy merino wool. So given that isn’t much of an option for me, can anyone suggest a source for new wool clothing priced under $100 per piece? Smartwool, Ibex, etc are just too far out of my budget.

jeff
Guest
jeff

While I think syntehtics outperform, wool is great, cheaper and more durable to boot.

Great source for very inexpensive wool knickers is Andy and Bax.

KWW
Guest
KWW

I really wish someone would come out with some quality spats – you know they cover your ankles and laces, effectively making your socks stay dry during a wet ride. Something classy…

Duncan
Guest
Duncan

also try silk- silk is great in terms of insulation/weight. Not so cheap though.

I like to pair my earth tones with a nice Blackburn X8 headlight 😉

Dave
Guest
Dave

“Cotton and down are fine as long as they stay dry – when wet they lose almost all their insulating value.”

Cotton can actually have a negative insulating value when wet, meaning you’ll be colder in wet cotton than you would be nekked.

As far as wool vs. synthetics, I think it’s more a question of the individual garment. A quality synthetic will wear and perform better than a cheap woolen, and vice versa. You get what you pay for either way…

Dave
Guest

I love wool for riding – I have some fantastic Biella wool argyle socks from Sock Dreams (mentioned in the article) that are both incredibly cozy and comfortable, as well as very classy looking.

The last few days I’ve been wearing a just-below-the-knee length wool overcoat riding, and it has handled the light rain perfectly well, and I’ve stayed plenty warm and comfortable, and not even gotten very wet under the coat. I wear a wool hat as well (kind of a driving cap type hat), and it’s been great for keeping my head dry and warm in light rain as well.

So yeah, so far my experience with wool has been really great. I sometimes wear a poncho over my coat if it’s just dumping rain, but in light rain, a medium-weight wool coat has been just great for me. Places like Andy and Bax often have nice wool coats for pretty cheap as well. I would imagine a nice wool sweater would be great if you wanted something a bit lighter weight as well, but I would then be much more likely to wear some kind of rain coat over it.

Dave
Guest

Also, regarding protecting your footwear:

http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com/2008/10/swimmingly-chic-this-winter.html

As far as I can tell, you can purchase these from their website in the US…

Opus the Poet
Guest

What needs to be done is to make everyday clothing bike-friendly, and at the same time make everyday bikes clothing friendly. I noticed that my cranks made in this century have large hunks of aluminum or carbon fiber where they join the bottom bracket, and that parts I have that were made in the 70s and 80s have much cleaner interfaces in that area, and are much less likely to grab a pant cuff. The absolute tops in that regard are the OPC American cranks from the 60s combined with chain guards, you could ride with bell bottom jeans and still not get caught in the works, because I used to do just that, back in the 60s and early 70s.

But those of you that claim wool doesn’t get a funky smell just haven’t had wool stuff long enough, believe me when wool gets old it stinks to high heaven.

And also, while the “stay warm” mantra might work in a Pacific NW winter, it is most definitely the wrong way to go here in TX. “Keep dry” is definitely the way to go in TX in the winter.

Jake F
Guest
Jake F

Great article!

I’ve been a fan of wool since a started backpacking and xcountry skiing. I’ve become a bigger fan since I found out wool doesn’t retain the sweaty smell that “performance” fabrics retain. My only issue is the availability. Sure, I’ve found some bargains at the thrift store and Andy & Bax but, like others here, I have an ideal in my head that I haven’t been able to achieve. Bright colors would be great as earth tones = invisibility.

What I really want to find is a pair of britches (or as I like to call them, knickerbockers) that are made for MEN. IMHO, wool knickerbockers would be the best darn thing for biking in the winter, but no one makes them any more…or at least I haven’t been able to find an affordable pair.

shawn.
Guest
shawn.

Jake F–Andy & Bax does have some surplus wool knickers that sell for about $20. They look nice and I’ve known some folks using them for biking. The big problem is sizing–I’ve only ever seen sizes 31 through 34 there, and the last time only size 32 waist. So if that’s your size, you know where to go.

Companies like Shelia Moon are starting to make wool knickers, but at the $150 price tag, it is quite the investment. If you are a bit more budget conscious in this uncertain economic climate, you can always buy wool pants from the thrift shop and/or Andy & Bax and have someone you know who is skilled in the sewing arts “knickerize” them for you.

And I also recommend the wool sock selection available from Sock Dreams down on SE 7th and Powell. If you are a man and want the “up below the knees” protection that works best if you are going to wear knickers, you’ll have to get women’s socks, since sock manufacturers all still think men’s socks should end mid-calf. They work fine, and no one will know the difference!

jj
Guest
jj

I love love love wool. smartwool and ibex are staples in my wardrobe.

dave, you can get Swims locally at Winn Perry – http://winnperry.blogspot.com/2008/09/restock-swims.html.

and jake, Sheila Moon makes men’s wool riding britches as well.

Bether
Guest
Bether

Another note about wool from a fiber fanatic: you don’t actually have to dry clean most of that stuff. Or, really, anything that’s 100% wool.

You can machine wash on cold and lay it out to dry, especially if it’s superwash wool (meaning it’s been treated so it won’t shrink in the dryer). If you’re concerned about it being fragile, you can hand wash it and lay it out to dry. Here’s how I wash all my wool, hand-knit or manufactured: fill a gigantic stock pot with lukewarm water and either Eucalan (a wool wash), dish soap or baby shampoo. (Wool is hair — shampoo works great.) Dunk my woolens in it. Swish them around, not vigorously, but enough. Dump out the water, and rinse, squishing (not wringing) to get the water and soap out. Eucalan doesn’t require rinsing. Then I run them through the spin cycle in my washer — it pulls all the excess water out — and lay ’em out to dry. Not hard, and unless you’re getting these things muddy, especially if they’re not next to your skin, they don’t need to be cleaned that often.

Dave
Guest

one more note about socks – if you like the biella socks (which are mid-calf, though they come almost up to my knee, just depends on your leg size), I highly recommend Sock Dreams suspender clip sock garters as well, to keep your socks up beautifully, and thus keep your calves nice and warm.

jj: that’s wonderful that Winn Perry has swims, I’ll definitely have to go check them out. thanks for the tip!

Paul Tay
Guest

Kewl. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for wool at the Goodwill Thrift Store! $149 for biking britches is a bit way-over-the-top.

The best place in town for new ideas on keeping warm, on the cheap, while biking is the Daycare Center for the Homeless.

shawn.
Guest
shawn.

Bether–good info about washing wool! Got a wool pair of pants that should get washed soon. Do you usually use a top-load or a side-load washer.

Dave (#18)–forgot about the sock garters. As for waterproof “galosh” type shoes, I just got a pair of “Bogs” from Andy & Bax (I’m not working for Andy & Bax, seriously!) They’re supposedly waterproof and at half the price of the Swims. They are made in China, though, and they can make your feet a bit sweaty. Haven’t had a chance to test them in a real good rain yet, like the soaking I got from riding home from downtown on Monday. But there will be plenty more opportunities to test them in the future…

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

My favorite piece of woolwear is my GI 5-button Army sweater. It is a thin (light), somewhat loosely-knit, form-fitting sweater that has extra long cuffs (may be rolled up) and a high collar in back. It is perfect for throwing on over a synthetic underlayer. I can wear two thin synthetic layers (short poly tee under a long poly tee or long-sleeve jersey) and with this sweater over the top, I’m good torso-wise down to 20 degrees. I need more of these, but they can be hard to find. There are a lot of Acrylic versions out there, but the wool ones are seemingly rare.

Graham
Guest
Graham

Perfect timing on the article, because wool has been on my mind as my next essential bike-gear purchase.

Unfortunately, ever the nicest wool feels scratchy on my skin, which is a shame because I love the way Ibex clothes look. Still, this winter I think I can go with some lined wool pants + plus long (non-wool) underwear. Same goes with up top: performance undershirt between me and the wool mid- or outer-layers.

Anything to avoid having to take off / put on rain pants all the time.

Also, I could stand a little more stylishness in my life.

It might seem superficial, but I think this attention to clothes that perform-yet-look-good is essential to making urban cycling blossom in the U.S. Hordes of people feel married to their cars because the trappings of professionalism tend not to lend themselves to athleticism, or to incremental weather.

(That’s also part of why we’re so stuck on energy-hogging AC and heat in office buildings – so people can look pretty in their suits. It drives me batty.)

If all Americans could see how frickin’ stylish and sexy the average Amsterdammer looks cruising around in his or her classy clothes, on his or her old-world bicycle (with his or her s.o. riding on the back rack), we’d gain so many new riders it would totally undermine the push for offshore drilling! I saw an art opening in Amsterdam where the sidewalk out front was choked with bicycles, and the gallery was crammed with beautiful people. And I thought: this could sell a lot of bikes. Sadly superficial, but probably true.

tom
Guest
tom

To answer scott g’s query kucharik has jerseys at $100 and below.

Two wool sources not mentioned are http://www.bicyclefixation.com and http://www.swobo.com

Fixation offers extremely stylish wool knickers. I like ibex wool clothes a lot (Elle mentioned) but look for their clothes on clearance because sometimes they’re ~$50-70 cheaper.

tom
Guest
tom

Forgot to mention vintage velos. I have and love the (wool) trainer I purchased.

http://www.vintagevelos.com

Dave
Guest

Since this topic is actually somewhat related to the wool discussion… I think it’s not so much that a person has to look stylish while riding a bike that will attract a lot of people (more power too you if you want to do it, I think it will be attractive to people who currently don’t ride bikes), but more the idea that you don’t HAVE to have *special* clothes to ride a bike. Most people have clothes that are sufficient to keep them comfortable in whatever climate they live in, and those can work on a bike too (with some possibly small additions to the wardrobe or the bike). All you really need to ride a bike is a bike.

Zaphod
Guest
Zaphod

I am trying out a new (for me) cleaner

http://www.altrec.com/nikwax/wool-wash-300ml-10-fl-oz

on my woolie stuff.

While I love wool for commuting and all but the most technical riding, there are conditions where synthetic technical fibers win the day. Wool does unbelievably well given how simple it is. But going on a long cold ride with steaming hot climbs and freezing descents, stopping and starting, synthetics often edge out wool. This is when comparing nice synthetic tech layers versus nice wool.

mmann
Guest

Jake F and shawn (#14+15)

Another knicker option. Wool pants + scissors. Wool suit slacks are often very high quality fabric and cheap at thrift stores. Generally, the cut is roomy enough for riding and the weight ideal for most of our weather (I find the weight of most army surplus wool is overkill) Even if you have to pay a tailor to hem them, you still get a nice pair of stylin’ knickers for cheap.

What I’m wondering is why, in Portland, someone hasn’t made this a business yet.

shawn.
Guest
shawn.

mmann (#27)–Yep, got some thrift shop wool slacks and had them cut and hemmed to knicker length. Works fine. I agree that the army surplus grade wool is a bit much, but can be useful for the really “cold”/really rainy days. (And during late night rides like Midnight Mystery Rides!) Otherwise, wool suit slacks are great, and you can always wear a thermal layer underneath for added warmth/protection. And yeah, if someone altered regular wool suit slacks into knickers, they’d do quite well.

r
Guest
r

nevermind the c-list cameo, the information and documentation in this video is important for anyone considering purchasing wool:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2syPtuGOEA

feel free to skip forward to the 0:32 mark.
though most of us like to think the wool industry is just a bunch of happy sheep on a mom and pop farm getting a haircut, that is almost never the case.

joeb
Guest
joeb

Great timing. I decided I wanted to try wool and hit up Clever Cycle just the night before last for a thin Ibex zip T baselayer something-or-other that cost me $75. As soon as I put it on I thought to myself, this could be the best piece of cycling gear you’ve ever bought. I’m heading over to Wool Night to buy another. Then I wore some Smartwool socks in the rain last night without shoe covers and was in great shape.

I think I’m on to something.

Grimm
Guest
Grimm

I have DeFeet wool socks for longer rides. They are great. And a patagonia wool base layer that I use year round for commuting (throw on a outer jacket during the winter). Good stuff.

K
Guest
K

As portland is full of resourceful people- take an old tee-shirt, cut the shirt into pieces at the seams- and head to Bolt, or another fabric store. I’ve been buying 100% jersey weight merino wool knits for making cycling gear. You can pre-wash the fabric, it’s light weight- non-itchy (I have extremely sensitive skin), very stretchy and is relatively cheap. Also- it doesn’t stink. So you can get a fairly good work out, and continue wearing the same jersey while commuting for the entire week.

torrilin
Guest
torrilin

Thrift stores around where I live (in NH) don’t seem to have much of the non-itchy merino wool.

There are a *lot* of sheep breeds that aren’t itchy when handled properly. So even if the sweater doesn’t say it is merino, check. You might be surprised. Cashmere, alpaca, angora, and mohair are less common thrift shop finds, but they have similar properties to wool.

The other trick is to go all Riv style. Wear a dress shirt or undershirt under the sweater, and see if that helps. A plain cotton dress shirt as a single layer won’t kill you in a city, and the closely woven fabric will protect your skin. And while you’re haunting thrift shops, you might find silk dress shirts… You do want a dress shirt or classic undershirt tho. The pleating and gathering on a dress shirt makes it good activewear.

The other trick for finding wool sweaters is to watch department stores. The winter sales usually begin in January, and you can find sweaters for very low prices then. You won’t get much choice on color, but odds are *something* will be bearable.

Early Man
Guest
Early Man

I wear wool jerseys all year long–light weight Canari in the summer and medium weight Ibex and Swobo Spring-Fall-Winter. A pair of wool arm warmers completes the base layer when it gets cold. I sweat a lot on a 28 mile RT commute and wool is the only fabric that can neutralize the bacteria. Synthetics are worthless for this job. If your bike commute has you showering at work each morning, wool is a necessity.

matt picio
Guest

r (#29) – disgusting stuff. The problem isn’t wool, per se, the problem is sadistic practices – I’d much rather see PETA sopnsor legislation to prosecute people who are engaging in animal cruelty than trying to boycott wool.

People have to wear SOMEthing, and every fabric has environmental impact. Look deeply enough into any industry, and you’ll find sick and sadistic practices. I hope that someone will take it on themselves to set up a certifying authority for humane wool producers.

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

No doubt about it wool is superior to just about anything else. I’d love to see Icebreaker do some cycling-specific shirts with back pockets…

hickeymad
Guest
hickeymad

No doubt about it wool is superior to just about anything else. I’d love to see Icebreaker do some cycling-specific shirts with back pockets…

davidio
Guest
davidio

Scott G (#6) – if you live in NH, make sure to check out Ibex’s annual barn sale in Woodstock, VT. They sell their overstock wicked cheap – just get there early and get ready to load up on wool. (man I miss that sale . . .)

I have been using a number of Ibex pieces for a few years now, not only for cycling but also mountaineering, backcountry skiing, backpacking, etc. After many years of having synthetic layering systems shoved down my throat by the outdoor industry, I am a complete convert to wool and have been amazed at what it can do. For me, staying dry is always much more of a problem than keeping warm, and wool makes it happen for me.

Donna
Guest
Donna

For those of you who are wool allergic: You might try a patch-test of alpaca. I’ve known more than one person with a wool allergy who then tried alpaca and had no problems.

If you know any knitters, they may have some alpaca yarn scraps that would be perfect for a test.

sabernar
Guest
sabernar

http://www.nau.com

Best outdoor clothes you can buy.

Robert Sanders
Guest
Robert Sanders

I have numerous wool garments that are very dear to me, and I’ve recommended them to others, but this video makes me question my consumption of this product:
http://savethesheep.com/f-pink.asp

Marion
Guest
Marion

I am totally alergic to wool, but so far Ibex does NOT make me itch.. I am addicted and bummed I missed the fete at Clever tonight.

MIke M
Guest
MIke M

I bought a wabi woolen jersey last year. I wear it every day. I hate to take it off. I actually got excited when it started to get cold again, so I could wear it. Mine doesn’t have pockcets, so it looks like a regular sweater, but is much nicer to ride in than the ones I’ve bought at thrift stores for years. The wind blows right throught them. I am a big guy and most thrift store stuff is shrunken below my size. I carry a poncho and have only used it twice this year.

My wife did not want me to spend so much on a sweater, but now she wants me to buy another since I wear it so much.

I have some Banana Republic wool pants that are super comfy and warm. The are a synthetic blend. Unfortunately they do get stinky. And are dry clean only.

I never meant to love wool, but it has been good to me.

Paul
Guest
Paul

Chrome also makes some merino cycling apparel:

http://www.chromebags.com/products/apparel/

Eileen
Guest
Eileen

Okay, the Pink video was too much. Maybe it should go side by side with a video about how synthetic fabrics are produced and the amount of toxins that puts into the atmosphere.

How about this, BUY some sheep and put them in your yard to eat the grass which will save you from having to use a co2 emitting lawn mower. Then you can shear them yourself, spin them into yarn and knit/weave your own wool garments. That is the only green option I see right now. Or, if that seems like too much, consider buying LESS (how many sweaters do you REALLY need?) and/or buy used.

As for wool allergies, my allergist told me that few people are actually allergic to wool but it is more likely things IN the wool or the fact that wool is such a great dust collector. I found I had to store my sweaters/coats in airtight containers and wash them more frequently. If you ARE allergic to wool, it is most likely the specific animal and if you try a different type of wool you will be okay (like Alpaca as mentioned above. Alpaca is soooo nice too.)

mabsf
Guest
mabsf

Hi,
just wanted to point out that Ibex works with sustainable sheep farmers in New Zealand. Check out their website for details.

tinderguy
Guest

Although wool gear seems expensive, it’s really not. For example, if you buy a single $100 wool jersey, you can wear it daily for 5-10 days before needing a wash (some wearers go much longer). Buying synthetics, 5 days of technical tops could cost $150-$300. From an economic standpoint, wool is a winner.

eileen
Guest
eileen

Mabsf, shipping from New Zealand is not very green either. Your only option is to start a sheep farm here in Oregon. And then deliver the wool by bicycle. I can crochet if you need some help. Willing to learn to knit. And once in girl scouts, I carded some wool. Spinning it might be tricky but my son thinks he’s a spider so he might be good at that.

Rebecca C
Guest
Rebecca C

Great article! I also can’t do most wool because of the itch factor. But Merino works for me. As a full-time student, I have neither many dollars to buy new stuff nor much time to haunt thrift stores, so I get clothes from e-bay. You can usually find nice used merino stuff that’s in the NW or on the W coast. (no, I don’t work for eBay). Good luck and thanks for the great piece, Elly!