Is Merino Wool the Best Base Layer Clothing Material?

Published: 05th October 2011
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Any outdoor activity is at the mercy of the weather. That perfect warm and sunny summer's day is rare and most outdoor sports will be conducted under less than ideal conditions. A little rain or cold shouldn't dissuade outdoor activities, provided the people taking part come prepared. A base layer of clothing is necessary for any strenuous outdoor activity in damp, rainy or snowy conditions. The material used in these base layers make all the difference in the world when trying to keep dry and comfortable in cold, wet conditions. The two most popular base layer materials are merino wool, which is all natural, and polypropylene, a synthetic fibre. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of each:

Merino Clothing Materials:

An all natural fibre, merino wool is perfect for keeping the wearer warm while preventing moisture build-up. Keeping moisture at a minimum in the inner layers of clothing is highly advantageous for activities where the individual sweats a lot - not only does this keep the wearer cool it also prevents odours in the clothes. The excellent moisture regulation properties and warmth of merino wool makes it the base layer material of choice for snowbound activities like skiing, snowmobiling and snowboarding. Merino wool clothing is also often used in outer layers for things like mountain biking and hiking in high altitudes and cold conditions.

Polypropylene Clothing Materials:

Another common base layer material, polypropylene is a synthetic material that allows the wearer stay warm and dry in cold and damp conditions. The biggest advantage of polypropylene is that it is a lightweight material compared to other, more bulky natural fibres. This lack of bulk makes polypropylene popular in the military as the base layer fabric for men in the field.

Which is the Better?

Both fabrics have their advantages - there is no clear winner. Natural fibres like merino wool are warmer, more environmentally friendly and also have odour killing properties missing in synthetic materials. Many people also prefer the feel of soft, natural wool fibres on their skin over rough synthetic blends.

It should be noted that clothing made from merino wool will be more expensive than polypropylene clothing. Merino wool is produced the old fashioned way from wool harvested by hand from sheep. Synthetic materials like polypropylene can simply be mass produced in a factory for a fraction of the cost. If budget is a worry, then you may want to go with polypropylene clothing for your base layers. On the other hand if you are willing to pay a premium for quality and comfort then you should definitely go with merino wool clothing.

As merino wool is a natural fabric that it gives the wearer an added sense of coziness and warmth missing from synthetic fabric. This is not to say that polypropylene won't keep you warm - it is more than capable of keeping the wearer dry and warm, but it lacks the softness and tactile sense of comfort found in merino wool clothing.

Polypropylene is more durable than merino wool. It stands up to repeat washings better than merino wool and does not suffer from shrinkage as much.

At the end of the day, both merino wool and polypropylene are excellent inner layer materials. The choice comes down to your budget and personal preferences. Merino wool may be a little dearer and require more maintenance than synthetic fabrics, but provides odour resistance, increased comfort and a better feeling of warmth than cheaper synthetic counterparts.

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