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Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team

Merino Wool vs. Synthetic Fabrics

By Hati Whiteley
23, Jan, 2018

Designer Ronnie explains how to choose between synthetic and merino garments

© Alpkit

Merino versus synthetic? It’s not quite an age-old debate, but it certainly is a lively one!  

Unable to resist getting involved in the merino versus synthetic debate, we put pen and paper in front of Designer Ronnie to get her take on base layer fabrics.

Ronnie’s response? ‘Why choose?’. Both merino and synthetic have a place in your wardrobe, to be called upon depending on the activity, conditions, and trip length. Here’s Ronnie’s weigh in on when to use merino and synthetic base layers.

 

Advantages of merino wool

Next to skin comfort

To qualify as ‘merino’, the fibres have to be less than 24 microns in diameter. This makes merino fibres some of the finest found in nature, meaning merino wool garments comfortable and itch-free next to the skin. The finer the merino, the more comfortable (our Kepler range is 17.2 microns, making it officially 'ultrafine'). For more on merino’s composition, read our What is Merino? develop.

Temperature and moisture regulation

Merino is a living fibre: it adapts to your environment. All textile fibres can absorb and desorb moisture, but merino is extremely good at it. In fact, merino can absorb up to 35% its weight in water, expelling it into the air to regulate your temperature. This means that stay dry and comfortable in warmer climates, and are insulated in cooler climates. The result is a garment that insulates against temperature extremes on both ends of the spectrum.

Naturally resistant to odour

By regulating moisture, merino wool reduces the growth of odourcausing bacteria in the first place. Merino wool traps odour wear, releasing them only when the garment is washed. Research has also shown that merino fibres provide a less hospitable environment for odour-causing than synthetics.

A man and a woman are stood in front of a stone mountain refuge, wearing merino base layers, with rucksacks and climbing gear on their backs, looking to the left of the frame

 

Fire retardant

Merino wool is naturally flame resistant. This means that it will not melt or stick upon coming into contact with burning items.

Biodegradable

As a natural fibre, merino wool will biodegrade under the right conditions rather than hanging around in the environment for many years.

UV protection (?)

You may have heard that merino will protect you from UVA and UVB rays. To a certain extent, this is true, however the colour and knit of your garment can impact the protection it offers.

 

Advantages of synthetic

Fast-drying

Unlike merino wool, synthetic fibres don’t absorb water. Cavities in the fabric structure wick moisture away from the skin, meaning the garment stays dry during high aerobic exertion, and prevents you from overheating

Insulation and breathability

Depending on how the fabric is spun and its thickness, you’ll find synthetic  base layers that prioritise breathability, insulation or moisture transport. Our Koulin range prioritise breathability and moisture wicking, promoting a cooler feel and reducing the likelihood of overheating when you’re moving quickly.

Lightweight

Synthetic fabrics are usually far lighter than wool.

Durability

Synthetic fibres are more robust and hardwearing that their natural conuterparts.

Kind to the skin

Fine, smooth fibres make synthetic fabrics much kinder to hyper-sensitive skin, and suitable for people with wool allergies.

Show from behind of a woman wearing a synthetic base layer and synthetic running tights, running up a rocky trail

 

When is merino the best base layer?

Moving slowly in variable conditions, out and about when the temperatures might drop: in these circumstances, the insulating, wicking, and cooling properties of merino make it the right fibre for the job.

Not sure whether you need your merino base layer on? Try the layering test… If you’re expecting to layer up over your base layer, you’re expecting cooler conditions so you’ll need the insulating qualities of merino.

A quick whip round the office revealed that the AK team tend to don their merino for winter hill walking, winter bouldering, caving, and stop start activities in general.

 

When does synthetic insulation make the best base layer?

If you are going out and working hard non-stop (ish) for a while, synthetic will best meet your needs as it keeps moving moisture away from the skin and won’t get over powered. Think cycling, warm weather hiking, trail running, fell running, any running really… If conditions suggest you’ll mostly be wearing a single layer, go synthetic: it’s the best for keeping you cool. 

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