Woolistic Sportswear

One of several wool jerseys available from Woolistic. Owner Alex Clarke was surprised how fast they became popular.

Cyclists, others warm up (again) to good ol' wool

Published: Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1I

In the past 15 or 20 years, there have been countless technical advances in clothing for athletes and active folks.

Clothes got smarter and so did we.

New high-tech, petroleum-based synthetic garments wicked, warmed and breathed, and they made those who skied, hiked, hunted, ran and bicycled all the more comfortable.

They seemed to do everything but run your 10k for you or make you resemble the second coming of Jean Claude Killy on the double black diamond.

But the latest advance in active wear involves looking to the past. Think of it as the ultimate high-tech fabric – in sheep's clothing.

Outdated and all but overlooked for decades, wool, insist its many proponents, wicks better, warms better, looks better and is kinder to the planet. It also passes the sniff test – it's anti-microbial, meaning it resists absorbing odors.

With the early days of winter weather upon us in Sacramento and in the Sierra, it's worth assessing the recent history of good, old-fashioned wool – how it nearly got muscled out of the way by those new- fangled fabrics that attempted to do some of the things – but not everything – wool has always done.

You don't have to look far into the past to see the first signs of the comeback. In 1994, a tiny company called SmartWool began selling wool socks for skiing.

"We started out begging people to wear our socks," said Molly Cuffe, head of the Colorado-based company's global brand communications. "SmartWool's growth has been fueled by word of mouth. We've gone from zero stores to being sold in 35 countries around the globe."

For active folks, it was relatively easy to go back to wool socks. They were toasty warm, and with the more common use of merino wool, they no longer itched.

Once SmartWool got a foothold in the performance sock category, it expanded into making base layers – the REI-ish term for undershirts and underwear. That was in 2000, and by then, the wool-vs.-synthetics battle was going full bore.

Cuffe said that despite the itchy reputation, wool shows its true functional appeal when worn directly against the skin. When you sweat, it pulls the moisture away from the body, a crucial part of staying warm in frigid weather.

To curmudgeons, wool was an obvious choice because it already did what it was supposed to do. But would athletes and recreationalists who liked their carbon-fiber bikes and mold-to-fit ski boots embrace something that seemed so old school?

Rob McCurdy of the Australian apparel company I/O Merino, calls the resurgence of wool "the wool revolution."

"It has as much to do with performance characteristics as anything," McCurdy said. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was a huge emphasis on performance materials using petroleum-based products. But wool will beat synthetic hands down for many reasons.

"Wool will absorb 30 percent of its weight in water without feeling wet, so you won't feel clammy like you do with synthetics. It's extremely breathable, it's naturally anti-bacterial and anti-microbial, it's renewable and eventually biodegradable."

Quality wool isn't cheap. Socks cost $12 to $25, base layers are $65 to $100, cycling jerseys are $90 to $150 or more, and SmartWool's heavier midlayer garments cost $130 to $220.

Linda Elgart of Sacramento, a well-known masters bike racer who also is an independent sales representative for Voler cycling apparel and DeFeet socks, says part of wool's comeback is that it's more user-friendly than the dated stuff that used to itch and shrink after washing.

"I absolutely love wool socks. If you're cyclocross racing and it's muddy, there's nothing like wool socks," she said. "The wool base layers are almost like a shirt. It used to be that wool just meant wool jerseys. Now wool technology has changed and it's a lot more comfortable to wear. It's soft and people don't have to baby it when they wash it."

Elgart added that wool base layers can be worn multiple times before they need to be washed.

"It's great for travel because it doesn't get stinky," she said.

Several companies make wool bike jerseys these days, including Swobo, Ibex and Kuchharik.

Alex Clarke, founder of the high-end cycling apparel company Woolistic, first got into wool because he began collecting vintage bikes – and wool went with retro. With the advent of polyester in the 1980s, the wool cycling jersey became a novelty.

In 1997, Clarke started selling used wool jerseys on the website he created for his old bikes, Vintagevelos.com.

"I had never worn a wool jersey in my life. I put them on the site for the heck of it and thought, 'Who the hell wants these?' "

The used clothing sold so well that Clarke started making new wool garments in 1999 – mostly replicas of famous old pro team jerseys worn by the likes of Eddie Merckx. The company branched out into wool undershirts. Then Woolistic found a new market, selling to police and the military in Europe. That's right, wool doesn't do something synthetics do – catch fire.

"We were kind of ahead of the curve," Clarke said. "Now there are a lot of companies making wool, which is good. I really noticed it kicking in by 2002 to 2004. SmartWool was the granddaddy and it had branched out from socks. People really started believing in it."

Then he adds with a chuckle, "We never have anyone who tries wool say, 'Please put me back in polyester.' "

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Read more articles by Blair Anthony Robertson

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