have to admit, I’m a bit of recovering gear junky. High-tech, lightweight, synthetic jackets and the latest poly-fleece long johns have always caught my eye. But I didn’t start out that way. My first bit of gear was dredged up off the bottom of the Army/Navy surplus. Grey wool Norwegian army pants. I bought them for 0.75 cents in nickels and two old bottle caps I hoped would pass as Civil War buttons. The old man that ran the place was full up on Civil War buttons, but he couldn’t pass up all those nickels. I spent the rest of the winter skiing around the hay field with my .22 sabotaging German heavy water plants and shooting pop cans.

Those pants took everything an 11-year-old special operative could dish out. In the meantime, all my high-tech stuff hasn’t fared so well. Ravaged by tree limbs, ground over sandstone and burnt up next to the fire, they are dust. I’ve worn out and replaced more than I care to think about. In contrast, I still have nearly all the wool garments I’ve purchased. But wool’s advantages for the outdoorsman don’t stop at durability. In any category you care to name, wool outperforms its space-age counterparts except two: weight and its scratchy texture. The itch factor is a matter of selecting the right wool for the job. As for weight, a few ounces seem a small tradeoff given its benefits.

Wool Wicks

At the top of my list of requirements is warmth and comfort. Everybody knows wool is warm, but few of us think of it when it’s hot. In fact Bedouin tribes have worn it for years in one of the world’s hottest deserts. Wool will keep you comfortable over a wider range of temperatures than any other fabric. This is all due to the amazing structure of wool on a micro level. Each wool strand is actually a small filament incased in tiny scales. The scales shingle over each other and shed water, but they allow the inner filament to absorb or dissipate humidity as needed. By wicking moisture away and controlling a thin layer of humidity next to the skin, wool functions like climate control for the body.

Wool maintains 80 percent of its isolative properties when wet. Again, this is due to its structure. When completely saturated, the tiny filaments absorb water but the air pockets between the fibers that trap warmth remain. Nothing out there even comes close in this respect. In damp conditions, mist and intermittent drizzle, wool will shed as much water as it can. In most cases the heat it retains will dry out the rest. A day-long steady downpour is a different matter and a waterproof outer layer is a good idea, no different than other fabrics.

To go one step further, you can greatly increase wool’s ability to shed water and turn the wind. Along with wool, sheep produce lanolin. This waxy substance is nature’s Scotchgard. Most all of the natural lanolin is washed out of the wool when it’s processed. Lucky for us adults, babies like to be warm and dry
too. A quick search online will reveal a number of lanolin-based products used to waterproof wool diaper covers. Follow the simple instructions to wash the lanolin back into your outerwear for an extra level of protection.

Wool

The author is putting his hands to work in his shop.

Wool Works Near Fire

Even when you’re warm, if you’re really soaked you will want to get dried out at some point. For most of us this means scooting a little closer to the fire. Try this with a synthetic garment and your nickname at hunting camp next year will be the human torch. Wool is extremely fire retardant, so much so that firefighters’ under-layers are made from wool. As a blacksmith, my clothes are constantly exposed to high heat, sparks and open flame. My old Pendleton felted wool vest has held up to the rigors of the smithy better than the split-grain leather welding jacket I managed to burn up in a week’s time.

Wool Fights Odor & Mites

You might be thinking now that you’re warm, dry and not on fire that you’re out of the woods. But believe me when I tell you that if you stink, you’re out of the tent. Luckily, wool has got your back again. Mold, mildew and bacterial growth don’t like wool because wool fibers are naturally high in antibacterial fatty acids. The sweat your body produces actually doesn’t have a scent; it’s the bacteria that grow while trapped in it that causes body odor. I have worn the same Merino wool under-layer for weeks at a time on backwoods canoe trips. We jumped in the lake to clean up and I rinsed the wool base layers out every few days. Go for three or four days in the same poly-fleece and I promise you that you will be kicking yourself out of the tent. For all the deer hunters out there, this should be getting your attention. There are lots of products sold every season to mask, cover up or eliminate scent. The new thing this year was synthetic base layers impregnated with charcoal. All that technology and flashy packaging and good old wool still comes out on top. Still a scoffer?  Dust mites, a major contributor to asthma and allergies, don’t like wool either.

Related Stories: Braving the Elements: Disaster Proof Threads

Wool Is Tough!

As I mentioned, wool is incredibly durable. For me, that’s saying something. My clothes are forever snagged on barbwire, too close to the fire or otherwise being ground to bits. Dense felted wool pants, shirts and coats wear like iron. Knitted garments will last for years but require more care. They are more susceptible to briar patches and fence crossings. Wool fibers will bend up to 20,000 times before they break. Cotton, on the other hand, can only handle about 3,000. 

Wool has a great number of advantages for the outdoorsman. Nonetheless, if it wears on you like a cheese grater, then that’s no good. Up until recently the fix was either to just be tougher or wear a base layer of a softer fiber under it. New spinning techniques that blend soft Merino wool with polyester fiber produce a soft, warm, springy fabric that’s perfect for base layers. Hand spinners and knitters have known about super soft Merino wool for years. Thankfully these new techniques have made Merino available to a much wider audience. Under-layers from companies like Ibex and Smartwool offer all the benefits of wool without the itch. Combine these with a knit sweater and some surplus felt pants and you have an unbeatable combo.

SHEEP

Wool’s The Sheep!

Another of wool’s many attributes worth mentioning is its sustainability. Unlike cotton, wool does not require petro-chemical fertilizers and herbicides. In many cases sheep are able to make use of rough range land otherwise unsuitable for grazing or farming. A single sheep can be sheared dozens of times and provide hundreds of pounds of wool over the course of their lives. They benefit from a nice tight haircut each year, just as the hot weather comes on, and we get a new sweater as winter slips up around the corner. Ironically, sheep are typically shorn during mild spring temperatures. This is to allow them to regrow some of their fleece to keep them cool and protect their skin from the hot summer weather to come.

knitting

The author’s wife, Melissa, knits clothes for the whole family. She looks forward passing on this tradition to their daughter Samantha

Home-Grown Comfort

Of all my wool garments, my favorites have been hand made by my lovely wife, Melissa. Like many, she learned the basics of knitting from her grandmother. Today she carries on the tradition that will no doubt be passed on to our daughter, Samantha. Sam is already fascinated by the steady click-clack of Mommy’s knitting needles. Knitting is not a simple skill, as some of her first misshaped socks can attest. Today, however, she has truly mastered her craft and I couldn’t be happier. Each winter she turns out new gloves, socks, hats and sweaters for the whole family, each one custom fit. If you or anyone in your family has an interest in knitting, it is certainly worth encouraging. The tools it takes are about as simple as it gets; a pair of needles and a ball of yarn is all it takes to get started.

Felting is another relatively simple process in reach of the home crafter. Knit items can be made oversized and felted. You can also simply felt with loose fibers. The magic of felting is thanks to the structure of the wool fibers. When laid out in opposing directions, those tiny scales on the fiber interlock with hot water and agitation. Felted items can be laid out over a form to make hats or even full sleeping bags. Sheets of felted wool can also be cut and stitched together to make shirts, pants and more. The basic tools needed are; in most cases hot water, soap and good, old elbow grease.

Weaving is yet another age-old manner of producing useable textiles. But unlike the previous techniques mentioned, weaving requires a good amount of tooling and the space to set it all up. That said, the Navajo made some of the finest woven fabrics on looms built from little more than firewood.

After years of trial and error, I’m steadfast that wool is the best the outdoorsman can ask for. There are lots of expensive, high-tech solutions for the same problems wool handles. Some of them perform slightly better in one category or another, but when you average out all the requirements most of us look for in our garments, wool comes out on top every time.    

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here