Almost thirty years after the introduction of fleece fabric to the world of sportswear and casual wear its arch nemesis, wool, has resurfaced with the aim of taking back its crown. Sporting goods stores have been instrumental in bringing back wool as a viable alternative to the popular synthetic fleece fabric.
Rebirth of Wool
Wool has experienced a rebirth with companies promoting a new blend called merino wool which is claimed to be finer and more lightweight compared to traditional wool. It has even been compared to cotton in feel. Some of the companies benefiting from this wool revolution are Icebreaker Ltd. an outdoor apparel manufacturer from New Zealand and SmartWool a company from Colorado that specializes in outdoor apparel base layers. They claim that client demand has gotten them to increase their inventory and sales figures have shown a marked increase.
Patagonia, another outdoor apparel company, has also increased its inclusion of wool in the production of their base layers; an estimated 57% of the base layer is made of merino wool with the 43% made up of a mix of fleece fabric and recycled materials. Chris Hawson, a buyer at Paragon Sports that deals in specialty sports products, stated that “Demand has increased dramatically.” The company has adjusted its inventory to accommodate wool products which now comprise 50% of their base-layer business.
Wool and Casual Wear
One of the biggest draws of merino wool for consumers is that most items can be paired with casualwear items such as jeans and skirts without looking “off”, sloppy or too sports-like. Merino wool base layers also beat out the synthetic fleece fabric in terms of odor control. According to satisfied merino wool user, Jake Jefferson: “I wear synthetics and I can start smelling it after five days.” He compared it to his use of merino wool layers for double that time and claims that although he smelled unpleasant his merino wool shirt was not as bad.
Wool and the Environment
Supporters of merino wool have also brought up the ever-present environmental issue. Arguments have been put forth regarding wool’s being more environmentally sensitive compared to the synthetic fleece fabric. The CEO and founder of Icebreaker, Jeremy Moon, claims that the chemical finishes used in manufacturing synthetic fleece wears off after repeated washings which lessens its functionality. The relevance of the use of recyclable materials in the production of fleece fabric is also questioned due to the energy consumed in converting these products for use.
But does Fleece fabric STILL win over Merino wool?
However, fleece fabric still has a big market share in the manufacture of outdoor apparel. Fans of the synthetic material prefer it because it is low maintenance and less scratchy. It has also managed to evolve with its customers with the introductions of innovations like the addition of spandex in some styles of fleece pullovers for a more comfortable fit. Many manufacturers are using recyclable materials in the creation of their fabric too.
The main selling points of merino wool are its departure from the “uncomfortable” feel attributed to wool products and its supposed positive environmental impact. Manufacturers of wool products have been aggressive in their marketing strategies and this has led to an increase in demand from interested consumers. With that said, merino wool products also cost 30%-50% more than synthetic polyester products. This may attract customers who are attracted to price, quality and prestige but could dissuade the regular consumer who prefers to keep costs down.