Wool fleece: smarter than your average fleece

We’re in an era now of green travel and green experiences. Bio fuels are the new sexy pronouncement in the airline industry, and with every mile traveled, we’re encouraged to offset our carbon to save parts per million per million somewhere further down the road.

Nary a trip out the front door goes by without the opportunity to stay green, but with tangible travel goods it’s hard to escape the benefits afforded by oil. It’s all around us — the vinyl in our tents, the Lexan in our water bottles and the polyethylene terephthalate in our jet black fleeces. Popular as those goods may be, they’re all cracked from long-chain petroleum hydrocarbons and in the end, contribute to our dependence on fossil fuels.

Unfortunately it’s hard to escape oil when trying to source good, outdoor travel clothing. Most of the warm, breathable fabrics that are used in a flexible, athletic cut are based on a space-aged stretchy polymer or some sort of other synthetic, non-biodegradable material. Gore-tex windstopper fleece, for example, is made from the same base material that Teflon and some armor piercing bullets use — all created from oil molecules.

Some of the outdoor gear industry is starting to go green though with the creation of merino wool fleeces. Technical wool clothing, if you’re up to snuff on your gear, has been around for some time, but it’s usually used in socks and the occasional base layer. Whether it was a limitation with the manufacturing process or the targeted demographic, thicker piles of wool clothing were never developed until the last season or so, but they’re now starting to creep into the mainstream consumer market. Follow the gearjunkie over at twitter and you’ll get a good idea of how often the material is discussed.The obvious benefit of the material, of course, is its natural source and structure. Most of the merino wool on the planet is produced from Merino sheep in Oceania, South America and the United States, and the nature of the material makes it biodegradable, warm and inexpensive. From a user standpoint, the material remains warm even while wet and has excellent breathability.

Another key benefit to the material is its ability to repel odor. Because of the way that the wool fibers interact with foul smelling bacteria, fewer smells stick to the fabric and create the longer appearance of cleanliness. Our editor at large Justin Glow is said to have worn his Icebreaker baselayer for two weeks straight without any foul odor setting in.

All of these traits are great for athletic gear, so it was only a matter of time until a savvy designer adapted the technology to fleece. Two of the industry leaders, Icebreaker and Ibex have released the first waves of technical wool fleeces, a series of eco-friendly clothing that’s supposed to be just as warm as traditional gear and with a lower ecological impact.

Needless to say, eco-virtue and trendy design can be trumped by performance and fit in real life, so Gadling Labs checked out on an Icebreaker 320 performance fleece on a test run this fall.

The pile in this lightweight fleece isn’t what one would expect in a traditional, oil based material. There is a subtle coarseness about it, a realness to the fabric that’s intrinsic to the merino wool. While not as thick and fuzzy as a traditional fleece, its feel against your skin is still warm and gripping, yet low profile enough such that it can be worn around the house without difficulty.

Icebreaker’s designs tend to lean more towards a slimmer, athletic cut, which works particularly well for slender or lean people. At 6’3″ and 145 pounds, the large 320 fits our editor Grant Martin’s frame well, as opposed to a medium North Face fleece which would still be to roomy around the torso. Part of that cut is also a function of the material, as a small amount of stretch and grapple is also afforded by the wool.

Besides fitting exceptionally well, the 320 is moderately warm, waterproof and windproof. Merino wool naturally tends to wick away water and if thick enough, can insulate from the wind. If either are encountered in excess, however, you can count on feeling them through the fleece. For something water and windproof, the synthetic materials still have the lead.

On the road and in practice, however, the Icebreaker 320 has performed impressively at Gadling Labs. There is enough give in the material to permit full movement, yet it’s cut well enough to not feel cumbersome and baggy. The 320 is warm enough for late fall, it’s eco friendly and most importantly of all, it looks pretty damn good to boot. With those qualities, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

[sheep flickr photo via David & Chi Basson]