In 2001, with Alan Dixon and Jim Nelson, I wrote Clothing and Sleep Systems for Mountain Hiking, which promotes the use of merino wool base layers in lieu of synthetics even in wet conditions as one finds while alpine climbing or springtime backpacking.
Since that time, a lot has changed.
My affinity for merino wool shirts has been further cemented. Not necessarily by advances in product technologies, but by experienced gained with wool shirts in conditions ranging from 90 degree heat in the Wyoming Desert to subzero backcountry skiing in Montana's Beartooths.
But technology has changed, albeit in increments.
In 2001, the lone U.S. player was Smartwool. Their "Trad" weight long sleeve zip-T weighed 11.0 oz in a Men's size Medium.
I wore that shirt so much it became permanently stained (it only came in "natural" cream), full of holes, and stretched beyond its ability to fit me (or anyone I know) ever again. At the time, I really loved that shirt. It was so comfortable. In retrospect, when I compare it to what is available today from Smartwool, Ibex, Icebreaker, and now, Patagonia, it really was a poorly performing garment!
Which brings us to today and Patagonia's introduction of 100% merino wool baselayers to the outdoor market.
Unique (claims Patagonia, although I haven't had the chance to verify it) is the treatment by which Patagonia conditions its wool fibers. It's 100% chlorine free, which is good for the environment, but perhaps of more interest to the performance-minded, it doesn't destroy the performance of the wool fiber.
You see, chlorine, which traditionally, is the treatment of choice to remove scales from the surface of merino wool fibers, also creates magnificent chasms (cracks) in the fiber, which can be viewed by scanning electron microscopy. These cracks are a problem, because they entrap oils and liquid moisture and destroy one of merino wool's key benefits, which is the storage and release of heat into and out of the fiber through moisture vapor exchange.
And so, Patagonia employs a conditioning treatment that is chlorine-free, and is supposed to remove the scales while preserving the structural integrity of the fiber.
Most people will say, "so what"?
While I appreciate the technological difficulties and solutions in wool fiber treatment, I can't say I blame them. After all, if it fits well, feels good, dries fast, and is light in weight, I'm good to go.
And this is why I'm excited about Patagonia's new merino wool garment lines.
Remember the 2001 model of the Smartwool Trad Zip-T? The one that weighed 11 oz, stretched beyond recognition, and dried at the rate of an Amazon prune? Well, it's safe to say that Patagonia has benchmarked that product. Their new Wool 2 Men's Long-Sleeve Zip-T, in the same size (M), weighs a scant 6.35 ounces. Lighter than Lightweight Capilene. The lines between wools and synthetics are getting blurred.
We verified this weight. In fact, Patagonia booth staff had no clue about how much their wool baselayers weighed. In fact, three different marketing documents claimed three different product weights for Wool 2 fabrics, ranging from 111 g/m2 to 148 g/m2. We're guessing it's closer to the latter. So, under the covert protection of Patagonia's Alpine product line manager Jim Trombly, who promised us immunity if we got caught, we snuck a few Wool 2 garments out of the booth over to a digital scale a few rooms away at the Integral Designs' booth, and weighed, and giggled with glee, at the results. We had to sneak back in the booth to rehang the garments (Jim was long gone, interestingly) without being seen. These indeed are exciting times!
We weighed a sleeveless Wool 2 muscle shirt, which would make a great base layer in combination with another shirt, especially during the winter, or it could be used by itself in warmer conditions. It tipped the scales at an astonishing 3.77 ounces in a Men's Medium (see photo).
The long sleeve crew neck weighed 6.63 oz, which interestingly, was slightly heavier than the 6.35 ounces of the L/S Zip-T.
One of the three brochures indicated that the Men's Wool 2 baselayer fabric is 133 g/m2 (3.9 oz/yd2). It's a jersey knit. The women's Wool 2 fabric is a slightly heavier pointelle knit at 144 g/m2 (4.4 oz/yd2). Patagonia also offered two heavier weight wool baselayers, creatively named Wool 3 (230 g/m2, 6.8 oz/yd2), and Wool 4 (265 g/m2, 7.8 oz/yd2). The latter two fabrics are less interesting, and are there to round out the line rather than offer any particular technology breakthroughs. A variety of interesting designs for both men and women will be available.