So Cool in Wool

image So Cool in WoolReview of Ice­breaker GT Run Gear

It might come as a shock to you that to remain cool on the trail, or wher­ever you run, you might want to try wear­ing all wool. It cer­tainly sounded counter-intuitive when I image thumb1 So Cool in Woolheard that Ice­breaker makes per­for­mance gear out of merino wool. With images of thick, scratchy sweaters pop­ping into my head, wool seemed like the last thing I would want to put on my body when prepar­ing for a run. It turns out wool man­u­fac­tur­ing has come a long way from those ski sweaters you see snow bun­nies wear­ing in ski lodges in old James Bond movies.

I was con­tacted by Natureshop, an online retailer of nat­ural cloth­ing, footwear, and home­wares, inquir­ing if I would be will­ing to test and review Icebreaker’s new run­ning gear (due to hit US stores in Spring 2011, but cur­rently avail­able on Natureshop’s site). I eagerly accepted the offer, hav­ing worn some of Icebreaker’s gear for the past year or so on my runs, ever since I came across them at the San Fran­cisco Marathon expo last year (the year of my back surgery). I was excited to give Icebreaker’s new running-specific gear a try, as I had been wear­ing their gen­eral per­for­mance tops. A few days later I received a pair of the new Dis­tance Run Shorts and Ace Tank (shown below).

Note: These goods were pro­vided free of charge to me with only the expec­ta­tion that I would give them a try and share my expe­ri­ence. None of the links are affil­i­ate links, mean­ing I don’t get a cut of any­thing you buy if you hap­pen to fol­low a link. I sim­ply pro­vide them as a resource for you.

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First Impres­sions

The first thing I noticed as I pulled out my shorts and tank from the ship­ping packet were the mes­sages on the plas­tic bags con­tain­ing the shorts and tank. Under the Ice­breaker logo was the fol­low­ing statement:

“As part of our com­mit­ment to sus­tain­abil­ity, this bag is made of recy­cled plas­tic. It includes a com­pound that assets in oxo-biodegration if it ends up in a land­fill – although we’d pre­fer you to recy­cle it through your local recy­cling cen­tre. We’d pre­fer to not even use this bag but it’s needed to pro­tect your Ice­breaker from when it leaves us till when it reaches you.”

This mes­sage rein­forced for me that Ice­breaker is authen­ti­cally try­ing to be more sus­tain­able, some­thing I very much appre­ci­ate. It was also the first time I had heard of oxo-biodegration com­pounds being added to plas­tic bags. I think I’m able to recy­cle #4 through my weekly recy­cling pickup, so that’s where the bags are headed.

The Ice­breaker tank and shorts felt quite soft when I pulled them out of the bags. I held the shorts up and noticed they didn’t have the same feel as the other run­ning shorts I have. The Ice­breaker shorts are a lit­tle more sub­stan­tial, obvi­ously not made of purely syn­thetic mate­r­ial. I read the tag that was hang­ing on the shorts and noticed that the shorts indeed con­tained merino wool – to be expected from Ice­breaker – yet also con­tained Lycra. This was a sur­prise to me. One of the rea­sons I like Ice­breaker is that all of their cloth­ing is 100% merino wool – I really like the idea of not wear­ing syn­thetic mate­r­ial. The tag explained that Lycra is used “as a struc­tural frame­work for finer yarns.” I think the use of Lycra is new with this year’s GT Run apparel. The inter­nal tag on the tank says the body con­sists of 96% merino wool and 4% Elas­tane and the shorts are 97% merino wool. So the gar­ment is pretty much wool.

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My first oppor­tu­nity to run in the shorts and tank came on a rainy North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Autumn day recently. I drove 20 min­utes to my usual week­end run­ning spot, Wun­der­lich Park in Wood­side, CA, in the Santa Cruz moun­tains half-way between San Fran­cisco and San Jose. It was the first storm of the sea­son and I was quite excited about the return of real weather after months of lit­tle to no rain. It was in the upper 50s as I headed up into the hills. I wore my Sugoi Hydro­lite jacket over the tank to keep some warmth around me and stay a lit­tle dry. On my feet were my Vibram Five Fin­gers with Injinji merino wool socks (the ones with toes).

It’s soft.

I really like the way the shorts feel. The inner lin­ing doesn’t chaff my legs the way my usual run­ning shorts do (North Face). The lin­ing is over 90% merino wool and is very soft. They felt great. The Ice­breaker tank top fit well, too. It’s not at all itchy and is cut large enough around the arms to give plenty of room for move­ment. It was just what I needed under my jacket.

No stink!

Wool is an incred­i­ble fiber. It repels mois­ture so it not only dries quickly, it also doesn’t hold bac­te­ria. Mother nature’s nat­ural antimi­cro­bial prop­er­ties means it doesn’t stink, even after a sweaty run. When I got back from my 5.5 mile run, I sim­ply set the tank top and shorts out flat to air dry. Later that day they were not only dry, they had no smell. It’s quite incred­i­ble. Because there’s no smell, they don’t need to be washed which saves water and increases the life of the mate­r­ial. There are sto­ries of peo­ple not wash­ing their Ice­breaker cloth­ing for months, and the mate­r­ial still free of funk. This is a huge advan­tage over syn­thetic cloth­ing. Syn­thetic mate­ri­als are noto­ri­ously bad for how they reek. So much so that an indus­try has popped up to sell us spe­cial deter­gents to get the funk out. No need with Icebreaker’s nat­ural fibers for any spe­cial chemicals.

Full breatha­bil­ity.

Wool actu­ally breathes really well. It might seem counter intu­itive as it’s easy to think of wool being very warm, but wool lets air escape. Ice­breaker has dif­fer­ing degrees of warmth, from fine, 150, to very warm, 300 and thicker. The num­bers refer to how well heat is held under the fab­ric, but at all lev­els the fab­ric lets air escape. I stopped wear­ing syn­thetic shirts because I felt so stuffy under them. Believe me, you haven’t felt breath­able cloth­ing until you try Icebreaker’s merino wool! Run­ning on warm days in other Ice­breaker tops have been very pleas­ant expe­ri­ences. Water is nat­u­rally wicked away to cool the body. It’s quite miraculous.

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Track­ing it Baack

With each piece of Ice­breaker cloth­ing comes what they call a Baa­Code. It’s a unique code you can use to trace the garment’s wool back to the farm it came from in New Zealand. This is so cool. image4 thumb So Cool in WoolI went to Icebreaker’s web­site and entered the Baa­Code found on my shorts into the field at the top of the home­page. The fol­low­ing page appeared while the search for my data was being per­formed. Appar­ently, the sheep that gra­ciously gave their warm coats so I could wear my shorts on the trails half way around the world came from 4 sta­tions on the South Island of New Zealand (nar­rowed down from 120 sta­tions). One of these sta­tions is the Lindis Peak Sta­tion. Click­ing on a link I could watch a video of Tom Moore, the sta­tion man­ager, talk­ing about the sheep, farm, and ter­rain on which the sheep roam.  image101 thumb So Cool in Wool

There are also pho­tos of the sheep up on a moun­tain in the snow. While there’s a good chance the sheep in the pic­ture did not pro­duce the exact fibers that are now in my shorts, I felt more con­nected to the source of my cloth­ing after watch­ing the video. Maybe it’s just me, but I really like know­ing about the peo­ple and ani­mals involved in the pro­duc­tion of stuff I buy. Ice­breaker has done a phe­nom­e­nal job of bring­ing the user closer to the source through this inter­ac­tive web­site. Check it out!

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Com­pany History

Ice­breaker was cre­ated by its cur­rent CEO, Jeremy Moon, in 1995 in Welling­ton, New Zealand. Like most inno­va­tions, Ice­breaker has its roots in a per­sonal con­nec­tion made. Jeremy Moon met sheep sta­tion man­ager Brian Brak­en­ridge who had cre­ated an all-wool under­wear pro­to­type. A com­pany was formed soon after to sell the under­wear. Ice­breaker con­tin­ued to grow its prod­uct line as well as inter­na­tional distribution.

I like the way Jeremy, the CEO and founder, explains the premise for the com­pany from inception:

“The plan was sim­ple: let’s be what the oth­ers weren’t. They were syn­thetic; we were nat­ural. They were about sweaty men; we were gen­der inclu­sive (I have three older sis­ters who were big on this). They were about hard adven­ture; we were about kin­ship with nature. They were about func­tion only; we were about design and cre­ativ­ity. Explor­ing for us wasn’t the high­est peak, but an explo­ration of some­thing much big­ger – nature itself.”

image1 thumb So Cool in WoolSome­thing about this state­ment hits me squarely. I can relate. There’s power in nature. I feel it every time I run in it, and why I pretty much only run trails. It’s about nature for me prob­a­bly more than it is run­ning. I appre­ci­ate Jeremy’s per­spec­tive and phi­los­o­phy. One of his lines hits pretty hard. And I like it. “When you’re in nature, does it make more sense to wrap your­self in nature, or in plastic?”

Icebreaker’s brand­ing has been quite sharp and no doubt has played a role in the company’s growth and con­tin­ued suc­cess. Ads of the last few years have fea­tured naked mod­els appear­ing like mythic crea­tures with the stun­ning New Zealand land­scape as a backdrop.

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The Kiwi in Me

I must admit that I like sup­port­ing a New Zealand com­pany, aka, a Kiwi com­pany. My mother was born in Auck­land on the North Island and I have rel­a­tives still liv­ing there. I’ve only vis­ited once, but I feel rather con­nected to the coun­try and the peo­ple of it. The nat­ural beauty, abun­dant friend­li­ness of Kiwis, and a clear lean towards extreme sports is some­thing to be proud of. Regard­less of my blood­line, I like that Ice­breaker has revived a dying indus­try. Ice­breaker now pur­chases 20% of the wool New Zealand pro­duces each year. I feel good about sup­port­ing the sta­tions and tra­di­tional way of life. And, yeah, I do feel proud to have Kiwi blood. It’s a great coun­try, and a great company.

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Bot­tom Line

I’m con­vinced. Wool is it for me. I love the idea of wear­ing nat­ural fab­rics, yet not hav­ing to com­pro­mise on per­for­mance. The fact that I don’t have to wash my wool gear very often (when you do wash it, just toss it into the wash­ing machine and then lay flat to dry) means the fab­ric expe­ri­ences less wear and will last longer.

There are a grow­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies mak­ing wool active-wear, but I like know­ing I’m sup­port­ing a com­pany who’s focused on sus­tain­abil­ity, treat­ing employ­ees well, and never com­pro­mis­ing on qual­ity. I’m a fan!

Now the price can seem pro­hib­i­tive upon first glance. $60 for a tank and $65 for a pair of shorts? That’s where Natureshop comes in. They have lower prices and their prices include ship­ping, too! And as a car­bon neu­tral com­pany, you can still feel good about a sus­tain­able sup­ply chain.

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Fur­ther Resources

More infor­ma­tion about Natureshop.

Icebreaker’s web­site.

Time’s arti­cle about Moon and Ice­breaker, Ice­breaker is a Nat­ural.

Pho­tos from Natureshop and Icebreaker.

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  • Andrew McGre­gor

    Great review. Very detailed.

    I aways pre­fer to pur­chase from man­u­fac­tur­ers that are more sus­tain­able and are an over­all ‘bet­ter’ com­pany. Also sur­prised about the price, was expect­ing the cloth­ing to be more expen­sive than $60-$65.

    • Clyn­ton

      Thanks! Yeah, when you look at what you’re get­ting in such qual­ity prod­ucts, it’s totally worth it.

  • David Csonka

    Merino wool, that is some of the same mate­r­ial in a few of the Vibram Five Fin­ger mod­els, correct?

    • Clyn­ton

      Yes, I believe so. I think they part­nered with Smart Wool for that. Makes good sense!

  • Shoshanna

    Thanks for all the info. I like the idea of wear­ing wool for all the rea­sons you dis­cussed but it can be pricey. I’ll def­i­nitely check out Natureshop. (BTW you can also get cheap Smart­wool socks at Nord­strom Rack and Sierra Trad­ing Post some­times.) Glad it’s start­ing to become more mainstream.

    • Clyn­ton

      Yes, it can seem pricey, but when you fac­tor in how long it will last with­out need­ing to be washed that often, and no spe­cial deter­gent to get rid of stink, it works out pretty well. Enjoy!

  • Sock Run­ner

    I think one of the most impor­tant thing when it comes to run­ning prepa­ra­tion is choos­ing the right apparel for the activ­ity. Look­ing for the right clothes should be based on how com­fort­able you are wear­ing it and not on con­ve­nience and fash­ion. Find­ing the brand that has all of this–comfort, con­ve­nience and fash­ion, no mat­ter how much is worth an invest­ment. Thanks for shar­ing this post. I’ll think about order­ing an Ice­breaker for myself. :)

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  • Gar­diner Rynne

    I pur­chased a pair of the ice­breaker run­ning shorts but was sur­prised to see they were made in China. True, they only claim to source their wool in NZ, but I thought they were made there as well.

    • Clyn­ton

      Yeah, that’s too bad. I’m still run­ning in these Ice­breaker run­ning shorts and lov­ing them, though. Hope you enjoy them as well.

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