In some ways, the athletic apparel industry is coming full circle in its approach to fabrics.
It wasn’t that long ago when conventional wisdom held that man-made materials were far superior to anything Mother Earth could provide on her own. Natural fibers were considered old-school in comparison to synthetic innovations that came down the pipeline with astonishing frequency over the past two decades.
However, a funny thing happened in our rush to improve what nature created: several companies realized that those original materials could work just as effectively – better, in many cases - as anything built in the lab. And in the era of increasing eco-awareness, using natural materials is not only a quality measure, but the responsible thing to do. (Thankfully, many lab geeks have turned their focus to utilizing post-consumer content in their clothes - which is equally great news, but not necessarily pertinent to the topic at hand.)
That’s why we’re seeing companies incorporate a remarkable variety of sustainable materials – bamboo or hemp or coconut fibers or crustacean shells, just to name a few – into their apparel, and that’s also why we’re seeing a resurgence in good old-fashioned wool. However, there’s one caveat to the modern wool phenomena: performance fabrics can’t use regular old wool; their wool has to be smarter.
That’s where the story of SmartWool begins – or rather, where it began 15 years ago, after a pair of New England ski instructors struggled for years to perfect a process of manufacturing that would preserve wool’s natural benefits - insulation, moisture-wicking, and odor-resistance chief among them – in a style that was also comfortable (wool is notorious for being itchy), durable, and easy to care for.
In the mid-1990s, this was a difficult sell, but the business grew by individual product testers and word-of-mouth recommendations (just imagine if there were bloggers back then!) until larger magazines and vendors began to take notice. Since then, they’ve won numerous awards, gained worldwide distribution, and expanded their product line to include socks and apparel for runners, skiers, cyclists, climbers, hikers and any outdoor endurance athletes.
To assure maximal comfort and performance, SmartWool committed to using only the finest wool in the world, from New Zealand’s merino sheep. I’ve reviewed other products that use this fabric, which is the softest, strongest, most dynamic and odor-resistant wool on the planet. This winter I had the opportunity to try two items from the SmartWool line, as detailed below.
These are constructed with a blend of 63% merino wool, 32% nylon, 5% elastic, and with seamless construction so you don’t have to worry about lining up the hems along your skin. A 1”x1” rib at the top and bottom openings keeps the warmers in place.
SmartWool’s warmers provide great temperature control when you’re starting off in cool conditions, and great breathability when it gets warm later. They’re very comfortable against your skin, much more so than traditional lycra or nylon fabrics.*
(*I’d like to attest to these claims personally, but in truth they were provided by my wife, who started using the arm warmers about 3 days after I received them, and has yet to return them to me. She’s either extremely impressed, or bucking for a promotion to become an Associate Product Tester for Running and Rambling. Probably both.)
SmartWool arm warmers retail for $25 from the company website (link above) as well as other online vendors.
“Micro” refers to the height of the sock - this gets a bit confusing, as they offer micro mini, micro crew, and mini crew, among others – and this sock is designed as a low-profile mild weather trail runner. It’s built with something called WOW (wool on wool) technology in high density impact zones, which makes the sock more abrasion resistant and increases its overall durability. A 4-Degree Fit System keeps the sock in place with bands across the arch, ankle, and two along the instep. Mesh ventilation zones further enhance the merino wool’s natural moisture-wicking properties for extra temperature and odor management.
For me, the bar for socks has been set pretty high by Drymax, and while Smartwool’s offering is comfortable, I wouldn’t use them in place of my regular Drymax trail runners for a long outing. However, if you like the same comfortable feel of merino wool on your feet as well as the rest of your body, they might be worth a try. There are a lot of styles and colors to choose from on the Smartwool site.
SmartWool PhD Running Micro socks retail for $14 from the company website (link above) as well as other vendors.
*Products provided by Polartec **See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at email@example.com.