I‘ve been wearing merino wool layers on the bike and on the trail for ten years now. The virtues of natural wool are many—cool in summer, warm in winter, water repellent, insulating even when wet, no stink, no petroleum, all natural, breathable fiber—and the list goes on. Wool is by far the most comfortable and practical weave out there for outdoor pursuits. Suffice it to say I’ve become a serious wool snob. So much so that when I met André while hiking the trans-Pyrenees GR10 trail, I almost snubbed him because he was wearing a synthetic poly-petroleum-something shirt. But his laugh eventually won me over, and I forgave his poor choice in gear (for the record he’s a wool snob now too). Thank goodness for that laugh, because I wouldn’t have learned the best wool virtue yet without André and our new family of three. Who knew wool would be so practical with a baby?
All those things that make wool ideal in sweat, rain and snow carry over perfectly for spit up, leaking breasts, pee pee spills, stinky messes and just about anything a baby can throw at you. We’ve been practicing elimination communication since Clara was 1 ½ months old. Simply put it’s using an infant potty in place of diapers. To learn more I recommend Andrea Olson’s book, podcasts and website. It’s a beautiful way of connecting with your baby while doing away with crappy diapers—in every sense of the word.
But the method doesn’t come without accidents. The other day I was sitting outside with Clara on my lap and I missed her cue telling me she needed to go. The result was pee pee in my lap. But I happened to be wearing a pair of Ibex wool/soft shell pants (great for camping, hiking and biking by the way). Most of the moisture rolled right off and any remaining sogginess quickly evaporated out of the breathable fibers. The best part, I didn’t smell like pee. You can wear wool for weeks (I have) without washing it (air dry it in the wind) and you don’t get that stench synthetic weaves hold onto even after washing. That alone makes wool extremely baby friendly because even with diapers, babies leak.
But more often, babies spit up. At least Clara does. With a merino wool shirt I can wipe it off and get on with my day no matter where I am (on the trail, in the car, at a restaurant). Because it’s naturally water repellent, spills don’t soak into wool the way they do with cotton. It works from the inside out too. I had no idea breast-feeding would be such a messy endeavor. From leaking breasts to drooling baby, the inside of my shirt is often damp. Cotton is the enemy in such conditions; so we learn in wilderness survival camp. Cotton kills, as they say, because it’s hyper absorbent and loses its insulating properties. Plus it shows the water mark—how embarrassing. With wool, I’m ready for chic French streets or camping in the Pyrenees with Clara. Vivre le wool!
My all time favorite, most versatile piece of wool clothing for both baby and adventure is the cycling jersey. Cycling jerseys are designed for occupied hands (the handlebar). So you’ve got a pocket in the back that you can easily reach with one hand (handkerchief for spit up, hat for baby, that sock that won’t stay on). You’ve got a zipper in the front that can come down with one hand (hallelujah breastfeeding). And cycling jerseys are long in the back to protect from drafts while you’re bent over a bike (or baby). Make it a wool jersey and you’re suddenly set for just about anything. Not to overly promote Ibex, but they make some pretty stylish jerseys that work under a blazer for a professional look, with jeans for a weekend look and of course on the bike for a functional look. I’ve got one Smartwool jersey, but I don’t find the cut very flattering. It feels like so many of the women-specific cycling clothes that really have men in mind. But mine is old, maybe they’ve improved the female design by now.
What’s really surprising about wool outdoor wear is how good it feels next to the skin. It’s soft, not scratchy. The old days of rough and itchy wool are over. Here’s a bit by Ibex explaining how soft wool fibers work. The feel of these natural fibers on your skin is so much nicer than the synthetic quick-dry material that feels like what it is—petroleum-based plastic that doesn’t breathe worth a crap.
The one drawback of wool is the price. It’s very cher (expensive). You have to think of it as an investment in something multi-functional. Plus, you don’t need a closet full. I can wear the same three wool jerseys all week—at my desk, on the bike and on the trail—not to mention with Clara. But if you want to get started in wool without investing much, shop at thrift stores and flea markets for old cashmere clothes. The cashmere wool is soft on the skin and comes with all the same qualities of modern wool athletic wear—except of course the functional design. I often use cashmere thrift finds as a base or mid-layer, relying on my outer layer for pockets and technical extras.
Because wool wear is an investment, you do have to take care of it. Though not always obligatory, I wash all my wool stuff with naturally mild soap on a wool cycle, and I line dry everything. I also keep lavender sachets in my closet and dresser drawers to repel moths, and I wear my wool often because moth holes happen when you store wool for extended periods.
To keep the naturally water-repellent qualities of your wool in shape, it’s good to treat well-worn items with lanolin. Here’s a link on lanolizing wool. Or you can follow the same instructions for treating wool diaper covers with lanolin (wool covers are great for diapering for all the same reasons already noted). But the easiest way to treat with lanolin is with a lanolin spray like this one. Truth be told, I’ve never treated any of my wool wear with lanolin, and it’s still water repellent.
Now that I’ve said my piece, I can relent some and admit I’m not a purist. For proof, my all-purpose winter layer for trail, asphalt and concrete is the totally synthetic Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket. It’s extremely light and packable, incredibly warm and dries fast. Though I will add the Ibex Wool Aire Hoody is high on my wish list (if it just wasn’t so damn cher). Bottom line is, I won’t judge if you’re not into wool. But it helps if you come with an endearing laugh and you’re ready to roll real.
Here are some resources for merino wool gear:
If you have a favorite wool designer, please share!
(BTW there’s a serious lack of wool designs for pregnancy, do share any sources you have or better yet, urge you’re fav makers to start making.)