Merino Wool: The Good, the Bad, and the Not-So-Stylish

Too Un-baa-leivable to Be True?


I’m merino mad. I love wearing merino wool and constantly spill yarns about it to convince others to wear it too.

But, I’ll sheepishly admit that I sometimes exaggerate. Here’s my confession:

Merino isn’t perfect.

If it were, I’d wear nothing else. But I wear plenty of non-merino apparel too. And most of the merino clothes I rave about aren’t even 100% merino.

So, instead of trying to pull to wool over your eyes or fleece you, here are the honest benefits and disadvantages of merino wool, how it compares to other fabrics, and my favorite merino apparel.

Merino Wool’s Benefits and Disadvantages

Shrek was too cool, despite and because of his natural merino wool coat. (Image from ABC.net)

Merino’s Wearable Styrofoam

You know how styrofoam cups keep hot drinks like coffee hot and cold drinks like iced tea cold?

Well, merino does the same for you when you wear clothing made of it. It keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold.

And if the styrofoam analogy doesn’t convince you of merino’s insulating incredibleness, consider Shrek.

Shrek was a renegade. He’s a merino sheep who avoided being sheered for six years and, since merino sheep’s wool doesn’t stop growing, become a giant cotton ball with legs.

If his 60-pound (!) coat were made of any other material, he’d be toast. But because it’s merino, he stayed cool in New Zealand’s hot summers.

Merino’s Not as Soft as They Say

The people who try to tell you merino wool is super soft are probably the same ones who tell you so-and-so veggie burger tastes exactly like real beef.

Merino definitely ain’t silk. It’s not even cotton. That’s why you’re not going to see merino wool towels hit the market any time soon.

But it’s not scratchy like regular wool, either.

Here’s the truth: Sometimes, when I initially put on a merino wool garment I think, “Hmm, this isn’t that soft.” But that thought doesn’t cross my mind after that. I don’t think about my clothes at all because it’s so magically insulating.

Merino Is Deodorant

Even when I fart the faintest of farts, Kim’s super sensitive sense of smell can detect it from across the room. It’s annoying.

But she can’t detect when I’m wearing a merino t-shirt for the 10th time without washing it. Somehow, the antibacterial properties of the fabric destroy odors.

Watch the above video if you don’t believe me. This guy wore the same Wool & Prince merino dress shirt for 100 days without washing and people couldn’t tell.

Chris showing the elbows of his merino wool sweatshirt
I had to put these patches on the elbows of my Ice Breaker merino wool sweatshirt because of holes.

Merino’s Not Invincible

I honestly and respectfully disagree with all the other blog posts out there that claim durability to be one of the benefits of merino wool.

Sure, it’s more durable than the wool sweater your granny knit for you but it isn’t durable compared to whatever you’re wearing now.

You won’t see many merino wool pants or sports apparel on the market and you will see a lot of holes in merino shirts’ elbows because it’s not that stretchy and eventually breaks.

So while it’s easily durable enough to machine wash (every 100 days or so you have to do so), you definitely shouldn’t put any merino in the dryer.

Merino Doesn’t Wrinkle

If you’ve seen my packing list and the travel tips our moms never told us, you know I don’t believe in folding clothes and hope to never touch an iron again in my life.

With merino, I’m assured to avoid both because the stuff doesn’t wrinkle.

I’m going to wrinkle before my merino clothes do.

Merino’s Plain

Aside from some pretty spiffy dress shirts (at least I think they’re spiffy), most merino wool clothing is plain, practical type attire.

“Unstylish,” some would say.

Kim’s one of them. She doesn’t wear merino simply because she hasn’t found anything that looks good enough for her.

Apparently, merino doesn’t have the versatility of other fabrics and that fashion designers desire to transform it into impractical but stylish designs.

Chris walking in his Icebreaker tank top in the Namibian desert at Sossusvlei
Merino’s great for the hot desert because it’s as thirsty for my sweat as I am for water.

Merino’s Thirsty

Merino can absorb as much as 30% of its weight without feeling wet, making it the most “hydrophilic” of all natural fibers.

Generally, that’s a good thing because it absorbs your sweat or the rain to keep the fabric clinging to your skin. It gives your skin the room to do its job of regulating your body temperature.

Merino wool and synthetic shirts hanging side-by-side
The only thing I don’t love about my Icebreaker merino tank (right) is that it takes longer to dry than my synthetic tanks (left).

Merino Doesn’t Give Up Moisture Easily

Hydrophilic is Latin for water-loving so, just like if you gave me a beer you’d going to have a hard time getting it back, it takes a while for merino to give up the water it absorbs.

These guys found that a 100% merino wool shirt took 40% longer to dry than a 100% polyester one. (48 minutes vs. 34.)

They also found that a 87% merino, 13% nylon Icebreaker Tech T lite dried just as fast (34 minutes). But I have a hard time believing that.

I often wash and dry my merino wool tank alongside synthetic ones and it always takes longer to dry.

Merino’s Easy-Care for Mother Nature, Too

Synthetic fabrics take 20 to 200 years to biodegrade and are polluting our waterways worse than you’d expect.

All-natural merino takes just six months. Watch the above video to see.

So whenever the sad day comes that you have to say goodbye to your trusty merino wool clothing, you can at least take solace in the fact that it’s not going to harm the planet.

Sheep Might Not Appreciate Us Stealing Their Coats

Shrek probably hid from shearing for six years for a reason.

And if you look online, you’ll find horror stories of farmers treating their sheep poorly and learn all about of “mulesing.”

“Mulesing,” to save you from Googling it yourself and seeing the graphic photos, is the removal of large swaths of skin and flesh from the area around the anus of a sheep. Sheep farmers do it to combat a blowfly infestation called “flystrike,” which sometimes afflicts the unnaturally dense, urine- and feces-encrusted skin folds around their animals’ rear ends.

Some farmers have abandoned mulesing for other flystrike prevention techniques. Others do it because it works and is good for the sheep.

And most merino brands say they take caution to only work with ethical farmers.

It’s up to you to form your own opinion on whether this is a disadvantage of merino or not.

Merino Keeps the Dirt Off My Shoulder

One final magical benefit of merino wool is that is naturally anti-static.

I didn’t know this until doing research for this post, but static attracts lint and dirt and other tarnishes.

That explains why, in addition to its odor- and wrinkle-lessness, I can wear merino so many days on end without having to clean it.

Merino Takes a Lot of Money out of My Pocket

You may get a bit of sticker shock when you see the prices of my favorite merino wool clothes.

I think they were worth the investment. You may not.

Merino Wool vs. Other Fabrics

Chris smelling his stinky synthetic shirt.
Synthetic shirts start stinking pretty much as soon as I put them on. My merino shirts don’t.

Merino vs. Synthetics

Low quality synthetic shirts start stinking as soon as you look at them, stain easily, and don’t insulate, but they’re more stretchy and durable than wool.

Higher quality synthetics do a better job at negating the downsides. Prior to getting into merino, I was all about Lululemon’s shirts. I still have some and wear them regularly. But they cost the same as merino.

Merino vs. Cotton

Cotton’s definitely softer, cheaper, and more versatile from a style standpoint, but it’s worse for any type of activity because it gets heavier, stinkier, and dirtier faster.

Merino vs Wool

Merino should have taken a lesson from alpaca and cashmere and completely dropped the word “wool” from its name.

“Wool” brings back mostly negative memories of having to wear unpleasantly scratchy clothes to cope with even more unpleasant weather. And it always had holes in it.

Merino’s fibers are finer, which makes it softer, and longer, which makes it stronger.

Merino vs More Exotic Furs (?)

Speaking of cashmere and alpaca, there are plenty of other of animal furs like mohair, angora, and camel that are less popular than merino but may have some potential as technical clothing.

It’s hard to find many companies selling clothes made from the stuff online, but I am curious to get an alpaca shirt from WoopWear in the Northwestern US.

Chris and Kim looking fit in Namibia
Two things I love: Kim and not wearing clothes.

Merino vs. Nothing

The best fabric is no fabric at all.

Or just a pair of my favorite comfy merino shorts if I have to. That’s why Kim and I live in places like Medellin and Cape Town during the northern hemisphere’s winter.

But wearing nothing’s not perfect, either. No matter hairy I get, body hair’s horrible at insulating. And it’s generally frowned-upon to walk around over-exposed.

Merino with Other Fabrics!

Some companies are messing with nature and combing Merino for super fancy, technical fabrics. Many of my favorite products are made this way.

Let me tell you about some of them now.

Great Merino Gear

I want your first merino experience to be as good for you as it was for me, so start slow and start with the best.

Try with one of the following merino wool products and, if you like it, start going crazy.

Happy to have my tapa-bar-worthy Wool & Prince shirt for Spain’s sweltering summer.

Wool&Prince Wool-Linen Button Down

This short-sleeved Wool & Prince button-down shirt is from the guy in the video above who wore the same shirt for 100 days.

I’m still working it in but it’s already become my go-to for travel (the chest pocket’s key for boarding passes and passports and the no-stink’s a relief to people sitting by me) and for going out for tapas here in sweltering, summer Spain.

Because it’s half linen, it gets more wrinkly than 100% merino clothes, but I don’t mind. It gives the shirt a less preppy and more casual look.

What’s not to love about my Outlier Ultrafine Merino Tee? (Maybe the color…)

Outlier Ultrafine Merino Tee

Remember when I wrote above that merino’s not as soft as they say? Well, I wrote that before Outlier sent me their Ultrafine Merino t-shirt. The shirt very nearly feels like soft cotton, but acts like merino (no smell, wrinkles, etc.).

Just like Outlier’s shorts, it didn’t wow me out the box, but won me over the more I wore it. It has now taken the title of favorite t-shirt from my Icebreaker Cool-Lite Sphere merino shirts. I just wish I’d picked a better color.

The only thing that holds me back from declaring it as a must-buy for first-time merino wool wearers is that it’s as crazy expensive as it’s crazy good. Maybe ask for one for your birthday.

Chris wears his comfortable
My Momentum shorts are one of the three best pairs of shorts I have.

Icebreaker Cool-Lite Momentum Shorts

It’s funny that they call these shorts “Momentum” ($90) because I basically only wear them when sitting around at home.

I rarely wear them out of the house because Kim says they’re not suitable for the public, but the first thing I do when I get home is put them on.

Darn Tough Athletic Socks

Darn Tough is a great name and these socks live up to it. They’re guaranteed for life.

Get a pair and try this challenge:

Wear them for a workout, let them dry out, and give them a wiff.

Wool-d You Give it a Chance?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that merino wool’s benefits far outweigh its disadvantages.

If not, please leave a comment to tell me what your doubts are or to share what fabric you prefer and why.

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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris started The Unconventional Route in 2018 to share their experiences exploring extraordinary places, things, and ideas. Now, over 150,000 people a month read their questionable advice. Every week, they share a new complacency-challenging and curiosity-tickling idea in their newsletter, Consider This.

16 thoughts on “Merino Wool: The Good, the Bad, and the Not-So-Stylish”

  1. I just wanted to add that the only socks I use are made with either 100% Merino wool or are a blend. My feet get so sweaty and I very easily break out in athletes foot and get super stinky feet if I wear anything else. Ever since I started wearing only Merino socks I haven’t had an athletes foot outbreak and my shoes don’t stink. When I tell people I wear Merino wool socks, they’re like that’s so hot though. Give it a try!

    Reply
    • Whoa… you’re totally right, valB! I too sometimes get athlete’s foot breakouts, but not for a couple years now, which coincides with when I started wearing merino wool socks. I never put two and two together until you mentioned it. I’ll add this point under the Darn Tough socks recommendation. Thanks!

      Reply
  2. Wanted to clarify. People say they’re hot, but they’re not necessarily. Depends on the thickness. They’re thinking of traditional wool.

    Reply
  3. I love merino! Im obsessed with all the 100% extra fine merino clothes of Uniqlo that I bought about $500 worth of clothes during their winter sale lol. I find Uniqlo’s merino is the best quality at the most unbeatable prices. I Live in Texas and our weather is bipolar. So when it gets a bit warmer i dont worry about sweating as long as i wear my merino clothes. Love love!

    Reply
    • I didn’t know Uniqlo makes merino apparel. Thanks Cristy! The Uniqlo EZY jeans (jeans that feel like sweatpants) are awesome, so I’ll have to try some of their merino stuff to see if it’s just as good. Prices seem reasonable, especially for merino, too.

      Reply
  4. I am just now introducing myself to Merino, so far I’m in love with it. I appreciate you pro/con comments and will continue searching and wearing Merino. If I had not been to a Merino outlet in New Zealand I would have missed this awesome material.

    Reply
  5. You forgot one thing on your list of pros and cons. Merino is subject to moth holes just like any other wool. Especially if you go a long time between washings, because moth larvae are attracted to skin flakes and food stains. My favorite merino T shirt got a moth hole over the winter—but I wear it anyway! And my superfine T shirt dries just as quickly on a hanger as a cotton one does in the dryer.

    Reply
  6. Farm to Feet merino wool socks were my in to merino. Same unconditional lifetime warranty as Darn Tough. Try the farm to feet Denali socks, as they have 91% merino wool.

    Reply
    • Cool. I’ll have to get myself a pair to compare to the Darn Toughs. Good timing too, because my Icebreaker socks are wearing out so I need replacements. Thanks Pete.

      Reply
    • I make felted wearable items out of merino. I could never wear wool but merino does not feel itchy to my skin.
      Try felting, but beware, it’s addictive!!!

      Reply
  7. I’ve loved Merino ever since I got my first sweater in it when I was ten. Plus, wool is great for cloth diapering, so I’m looking forward to using it for that! My biggest problem is socks. I’m desparately in search of wool toe socks because I just can’t stand my toes touching, but they’re impossible to find!

    Reply
    • Wool diapers? Huh. Something to keep in mind. Thanks.
      I’ve never noticed my toes touching before. You must have exquisitely sensitive toes. Maybe get toe spacers until merino toe socks hit the market?

      Reply
  8. One thing to consider is that there are apparently people who find ANY wool itchy. I know because I am one of them. I kept seeing all these ads form all these companies selling Merino clothing, claiming it was non-itchy, keeps you cool in summer, blah, blah, blah. I finally caved and ordered a t-shirt from Woolx. Maybe Woolx is not really a good brand (?), but in any case I was very disappointed. Simply put, it was itchy. Not as itchy as other types of wool, but still bad enough. I simply cannot abide that awful crawling, prickling sensation on my skin. Adding to the disappointment was the fact that the shirt was VERY thin, to the point of being fairly see-through. Perhaps both problems could have been solved by wearing another shirt of a different material under the wool shirt, but their whole advertising campaign is built on the promise that you don’t have to. I would also have been very worried about durability in such a thin shirt. Needless to say, the shirt went back. I have decided that the ultimate hot weather fiber is linen, which you do not even mention. Linen is naturally antimicrobial, quicker drying than cotton, totally non-itchy, and–if good quality fabric has been used–very durable. I am just now having to replace my grandmother’s linen dish towels that I have used for the past thirty years, and which were already well used when I got them.

    Reply
    • Hi Laurie,
      Kim feels the same way as you. She too can’t stand the feel of merino on her skin and is infatuated with linen. Linen may be antimicrobial, but in my experience it stinks up faster than merino and I can’t stand the wrinkles. (Or , better said, Kim can’t stand them on my shirts and doesn’t let me wear them unless they’re flattened out.)
      As for WoolX, I don’t have experience with their products but suspect they’re closer in quality to Icebreaker (ok for some, not for all) than to Outlier, Unbound, or Core Merino. If you’re ever open to trying more merino and have money to burn, give those brands a try.

      Reply

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