One of the more distinguishing characteristics of the human species is that we are always seeking for more; always attempting to improve on what we have, especially in clothing which is a quintessential human concept. A fabric gains “high performance” cachet by exhibiting an exceptionally high level of “performance” for some important quality such as wind protection, fire retardant, mildew resistance, water proofing, warmth, moisture transfer, tear resistance, impact transference, UV protection or one of dozens of other fabric performance qualities that are desirable under some circumstances.
Technology advances in creating new synthetic high performance fibers and in new processing and manufacturing techniques plus lifestyle changes have boosted high performance apparel to become one of the fastest growing segments of the international textile and clothing industry. High performance fabrics have been developed for niche markets for decades. The range of high performance fabrics and their uses is astonishing. I guess it is a curious commentary on our times that the two niches for high performance clothing that generate the most interest are for extreme sports / outdoor activities and for high security apparel for bullet- and shrapnel-proof suits for international corporate executives, diplomats and hip hop artists.
In the high performance outdoor activities niche, several apparel manufacturers have applied new processing technologies to improve the outdoor performance of wool, a fiber naturally high in outdoor warmth performance. Using the finest New Zealand merino wool and new manufacturing processes, SmartWool, a New England outdoor clothing company, has created outdoor clothing with exceptional warm and lightness that doesn’t itch, shrink or smell like a goat when wet.
Eons of evolution have endowed the merino sheep from the mountains and high country of New Zealand and Australia with a super-fine wool fiber that creates a fabric laced with tiny air pockets that efficiently trap air to keep the wearer warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather while wicking away moisture for a dry, comfortable feeling. The super-fine merino wool fibers absorb and pull moisture vapor away from your body unlike synthetic fibers which can only wick the moisture away after it has condensed. One square inch of skin on a merino sheep produces about four times as many wool fibers as on other breeds of sheep.
The composition of wool naturally endows it with high performance qualities such as warmth, water-repellent, odor-resistance, flame-retardant, durability, anti-static, and UV protection. Wool is 90% keratin – a tough, insoluble, fibrous protein also found in hair, finger nails, horns, hooves and the outer layer of skin. A wool fiber can be bent and twisted more than 20,000 times before it will break. Wool fibers also have a natural elasticity that allows them to be stretched up to one-third before snapping back to their original length.
Each wool fiber is covered with tiny scales like tiles or shingles on a roof that help shed water, rain or spills. But wool is full of contrasts and paradoxes that give it outstanding high performance for cold weather activities. The interior (called the cortex) of wool fiber can hold up to 30% of its weight in moisture without the wool fabric feeling damp or clammy, while the exterior (called the cuticle) is water repelling.
Imagine the outdoor hiker, biker, climber, skier or boarder out doing their thing on a cool day wearing their high performance Merino wool long sleeve crew neck undershirt. Perhaps there is a light rain or heavy snow. Tiny microscopic openings in the coating over the scales allow wool to absorb water vapor from body perspiration while blocking out larger drops of water. Moisture from perspiration is then wicked away to the outer surfaces of the wool garment where it can be evaporated and released.
Also, when moisture enters the wool fiber, energy is released in the form of heat which helps keep the outdoor enthusiast warm. This principle of "heat of sorption" was first scientifically explained by the great French scientist J.P. Coulier in 1858. When water vapor is absorbed into wool fibers, it binds to the chemical structure of wool fiber and small amounts of energy are released in the form of heat.
The crimped structure of wool fibers creates fabrics loaded with tiny air spaces which act as Nature’s most efficient insulator adding to wool’s reputation for warmth and comfort. It is the air trapped between the wool fibers and not the fibers themselves that keep you warm. Because Merino wool fibers are smaller in diameter and they are more numerous that coarser wools, they trap more air pockets and keep you warmer.
The high performance characteristics of wool help keep the wearer warm in the winter and cool in the summer by naturally maintaining a comfortable balance in the wearer’s personal microclimate – that is the air between the skin and the layers of clothing. This means that in warm weather fine wool helps keep the wearer cool by transferring heat and body moisture away from the body for a naturally cooling effect. A fine, light wool suit can actually be cooler and more comfortable for summer wear than a cotton suit.
But wool also has a reputation for shrinking. Shrinkage in wool is caused, in part, by wool fibers running in different directions. When wool becomes saturated with water during washing, the wool fibers expand and stretch because of the elasticity of wool. When wool dries, especially if it dries quickly in a hot clothes drier, the water is extracted from the wool fibers and the fibers “deflate” toward their original size. Wool fibers are covered with tiny scales like tiles on a roof and if the scales on one fiber catch on the scales of a neighboring fiber because they run in the opposite direction, the result is that the fibers get pulled out-of-sorts and cause the garment to shrink in size. Some manufacturers preprocess the wool fibers so that the scales on all the fibers are going in the same direction to help reduce the degree of shrinkage because the scales from one fiber can not catch on adjacent fibers. Some manufacturers also reduce wool shrinking by using a special resin to coat the wool fibers so that their scales can not catch on their neighbors.
The water repellent nature of wool helps keep wool fabrics cleaner by repelling stains and spills. Wool’s anti-static qualities also help keep soil particles and dust from being attracted by static charge to wool fabrics.
Technology is also used during preprocessing for manufacturing to sort and select only the finest (smallest diameter) Merino fibers. The smaller the diameter, the less scratchy and itchy the fabric. Merino wool is one-third to one-tenth the thickness of a human hair Clothing made from very fine Merino wool is soft, luxurious and can be worn next to the skin without discomfort.
i-merino is another apparel company that manufactures high performance clothing from Merino wool. Founded by Stuart Adams, a fourth-generation Merino wool grower in Australia, i-merino weds sustainable farming practices with high tech wool fabric manufacturing to give birth to a super soft, high performance outdoor fabric for truly eco-friendly wool clothing.
Sheep growers have often been criticized because sheep grazing can be very hard on pastures and the environment. Stuart Adams has proselytized enlightened and sustainable animal husbandry and environmentally low-impact grazing practices combined with eco-friendly wool manufacturing toward the goal of producing certified sustainable and organic wool clothing. After an 18-month audit, the European Union Eco-labeling Board (EUEB) awarded Ecolabel status to selected i-merino jersey fabrics.
The EU Ecolabel is one of the highest textile certifications given to fabrics for sustainable and environmentally healthy practices from the sourcing of wool fiber, through the scouring/cleaning, spinning, dying, and finishing of the fabric. All of these steps are in accordance with certified organic standards but the EU Ecolabel certification does not include the first step of the process - the actual raising of the sheep and production of the wool. According to Stuart Adams, “We feel that these farming standards are important, and we’re moving in that direction. But with wool, it’s the processing – the chemical use and the effluent – that’s considered to be the biggest environmental issue.”
Another Merino wool innovator and fabric manufacturer is Designer Textiles International from New Zealand and their MAPP (Merino Advanced Performance Program). Designer Textiles and MAPP use only sustainable and environmentally-sound manufacturing practices and processes. They purchase only the finest Merino wool directly from the Merino wool growers in the high country of New Zealand’s Southern Alps that are committed to environmental sustainability in grazing land management and non-abusive animal husbandry for their flocks. In their Merino Advanced Performance Program, Designer Textiles created a variety of fabric weights and some blends to match the needs of different outdoor activities.
A new MAPP innovation called MAPP Matrix extends the range of Merino performance by creating a layered technical fabric with a MAPP 100% Merino core on the inside for comfortable skin contact and a technical performance outer layer that provides improved water and wind resistance.
Outdoor apparel manufacturers such as Hincapie Sportswear have adopted MAPP fabrics into their activewear lines. According to Rich Hincapie, President of Hincapie Sportswear, “Merino Advanced Performance Program® (MAPP) uses a combination of scientific analysis, natural Merino breeding programs and innovative processing to produce premier Merino performance fabrics for outdoor activities.”
The outdoor clothing market is wrapped in hundreds of high tech and high performance fabrics but apparel from Merino wool and manufactured by the more "green" and eco-friendly manufacturers are the most natural and sustainable. Plus their all-weather performance is exceptional.
Where purely beautiful clothing is only natural