In sheep’s clothing

November 26, 2013
Runners model Icebreaker’s Sonic Long Sleeve Half Zip ($110) for men and the Dart Long Sleeve Half Zip ($140) for women.
Runners model Icebreaker’s Sonic Long Sleeve Half Zip ($110) for men and the Dart Long Sleeve Half Zip ($140) for women.

Puma and alligator logos have shown up on sportswear for decades. But workout clothing might warrant a new animal mascot: the super-furry, curvy-horned merino sheep. That’s because its soft, durable wool is now starring in zip-ups, running tights and sports bras. Even Nike is getting sheepish — the brand just introduced Dri-Fit Wool, a polyester-wool blend that’s in T-shirts, training pants and hoodies.

“It’s a fiber that works well for the animals, which survive in cold and hot conditions. Wool has got such good thermal regulation,” says Lisa Ferreira, global merchandising director at Icebreaker, a merino active clothing company based in New Zealand, that’s determined to make wool the natural choice for exercisers around the globe.

Icebreaker’s first D.C.-area store opened last week, and the rustic-cool Bethesda digs (4821 Bethesda Ave.; 301-913-0379, us.icebreaker.com) — with wide-plank wood floors and photo murals of New Zealand’s mountains — won’t let anyone forget the company’s mission. By the register, a flat-screen TV displays footage of runners intercut with video of sheep, with all of the subjects backdropped by peaks straight out of “Lord of the Rings.” And in the back sits the “touch lab,” a rack of please-paw samples of base layers and shirts that prove the stuff really doesn’t itch.

SmartWool’s PhD Seamless Racerback Bra ($60) and other items prove wool is versatile.
SmartWool’s PhD Seamless Racerback Bra ($60) and other items prove wool is versatile.

“General consumers still think wool is for rough sweaters that Grandma knit you,” says Steve Metcalf, senior global communications manager for SmartWool, which also makes merino sportswear. (It’s sold through smartwool.com and several retailers, including Nordstrom and REI.) “But now it’s much softer and more pliable.”

That’s because the wool generally used for workout clothes comes from sheep that live in higher-altitude conditions in New Zealand, Australia and Uruguay, which translates into “fibers that are longer, thinner and finer,” says Icebreaker’s Ferreira. “That means garments aren’t as scratchy as things woven from conventional wool.”

Plus, wool blends well — with Spandex in a pair of bike shorts or polyester in a sports bra — helping it both stretch and feel softer.

Then there are all of the properties that made wool so popular before the advent of synthetic technical fabrics. Wool breathes and wicks, so it can keep you warm on an early morning run and cool during a sweaty indoor cycling class. It also doesn’t get stinky (a fact that may surprise anyone who’s ever visited a barnyard or a petting zoo).

“Wool keeps moisture off your skin, which makes it naturally odor-resistant,” says Keith Anderson, head of marketing for Ibex (shop.ibex.com), a Vermont-based sportswear company that specializes in wool cycling attire (sold online and at BicycleSpace on Seventh St. NW in D.C.). “You can wear it to the gym three or four days in a row without laundering it.” (And yes, you can launder the stuff.)

Such natural goodness comes at a steeper price than most synthetic workout wear. (Wool hoodies tend to run about $150; similar fleece numbers usually cost less than half that.) But companies like Icebreaker are betting that the fibers’ fuzzy logic will attract herds of customers.

merinosheep
What Is Merino?

Merino sheep look like a fuzzier version of bighorn sheep. The best merinos for workout wool production live at high altitudes in New Zealand. The fleece, which protects them in extreme heat and cold, produces a wicking, odor-repelling knit that’s warm in winter and cool in summer. Oh, and, relative to its overall size, the merino ram has the largest testicles of any farm animal, Icebreaker claims, though it’s unclear if this affects fabric quality.

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Shauna Miller · November 25, 2013