Dec 8 2010

Wool – Not just for grandma’s sweater

What happens to all those sheep who do not get the honor of producing itchy sweaters for the following market segments:

  • the elderly (love you grandma!)
  • 20 something’s who have run out of party theme ideas, and,
  • teachers who have given up on fashion?

I’ve recently discovered that some of them get employed by a couple of pretty cool companies that are looking to disrupt their respective industries by putting a big focus on sustainability.  We just wanted to take a minute to share this story – yet another example of “old fashioned technology” coming back to challenge our great technological innovations of the 20th century.

Merino Wool Source

Champion Merino Ram - 1905 Sydney Sheep Show


Hikers have known the magic of a special kind of wool called Merino wool for years now, but this material is only recently starting to get noticed by the broader public.

Bad-ass New Zealand sheep (pictured above) make this fabric which is:

  • Uber-soft (read: not itchy)
  • Breathable
  • Keeps you warm when wet
  • Regulates your body temperature (cool in hot weather, warm in cold, just like a thermos!  how do they do that?)
  • And, best of all, doesn’t stink…even after days of intense use (trust me, I push the limits…).
  • Actually, better yet, it’s 100% natural, and renewable, and companies like Icebreaker and Smartwool seem to be working with local herders to ensure that the sheep and local communities are treated fairly.

Everyone I’ve talked to who has tried these garments (shirts, socks, hats, etc.), agree it knocks the socks off [pun attended] most synthetic materials in many ways.  Here’s hoping for wider adoption of the material, not just because of the quality of the product, but because the more popular it gets, the more accountable synthetic material producing companies will need to be.

Bonus: Check out this new suit that can be worn in the shower, then dries within a few hours w/ no ironing required – can’t argue against that awesomeness.


So, what about the wimpy American sheep that do produce the itchy material we’ve all come to love to hate?  Well, 90% of the wool they produce currently gets wasted.

Enter Bellwether Materials (and a few other small European companies) that are taking that throwaway wool and using it as high quality housing insulation.  Turns out that wool has great qualities for insulation:

  • Its crimped nature (60-80% of volume is air) gives it a R-value (resistance to heat flow) higher than fiberglass, cellulose, and mineral wool [source]
  • It’s allergen-free
  • It’s naturally resistant to pest, fire, and mold
  • It pays back its energy costs more than 5 times sooner (only 15 kW of energy are used to produce 1 m³) than traditional insulation materials
  • It’s natural and renewable

On top of all that, Bellwether Materials is being produced in American mining towns as a way to bring back jobs to those areas.

Compare that to the common insulation material, fiberglass, that can be dangerous to your health.

Why do I (and should you) care?

Certainly, there are obstacles (particularly, scalability) for these new ventures to overcome, and some negatives to consider, but we think this is another example (check out my talk on barefoot running) of natural things outperforming, or at least equaling in many ways, the synthetic things that have engulfed many parts of our lives.  I’m excited to see what comes of all this, and in the meantime, will keep enjoying my wonderful merino wool clothes.