Friday, March 20, 2015

Merino Wool, Permaculture fiber

Cascadia is a beautiful, lush bio-region of North America. More this area is know by the proper names British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. The areas commonalities with climate, geography, flora, fauna, culture and history are all shared, regardless of Nationality. People of Cascadia have more in common with each other than with the folk is the more eastern parts of the our respective countries. There is a more free, liberty mindset here, as well as a general deep connection with the earth, the ocean and the skies. Big trees, snow capped peaks and clean, cold ocean waters border our towns, and that creates a symbiosis with us and the land. One element that is ever present in this climatic zone, and for the most part, all year round, is precipitation. Whether it is rain, snow, fog, or condensation drip, moisture is what allows for the lush bio-diversity of our region. Being an outdoors person, dealing with moisture is the number one factor with being comfortable during our outdoor pursuits.

A number of years ago I was introduced to Merino wool by a friend. I was blown away by the softness of the material, the comfort against the skin, and how light weight the garments were. Never experiencing this before, having always worn rag wool type sweaters for work and play. While warm, and durable, this material is much heavier, bulky, and quite itchy at times. Although this natural material is better than synthetics in breath ability, fire resistance and sustainability, it has nothing to Merino. That introduction was a game changer, and created a passion for the most comfortable clothing I had experienced.

Merino has a wonderful ability to regulate your body temperature. Wearing a t-shirt made from it in the summer when it is 25 degrees or more allows the skin to breathe really well, complimenting your bodies natural ability to self regulate. Merino also has a high SPF rating. Combine these two qualities and you have a perfect garment for summer sports. Hard hikes, bicycle rides, runs, even water sports like SUP and snorkeling all work well with Merino.

Layering systems, such as the one by First Lite, allow for fine tuning of the bodies temperature in the winter time too. Layer up heavy for the early morning as you prepare for the day climbing a peak, or riding a chairlift, then open zippers or remove layers as needed to keep you from over heating. If you do end up perspiring, another key to Merino, like all wool, is its inherit ability to keep you warm, even when wet. Unlike cotton that pulls heat out of your body when it gets wet, Merino maintains the insulating ability when wet. This fact has, in my opinion, saved more than one lost hiker from not making it home alive. The insulating quality of Merino, for the weight, is the number one reason this should make up the bulk of your kit in the outdoors.

Along with being safer in cold temperatures, Merino is also much safer around fire. Wool doesn't burn well. A spark landing on it will not ignite or melt. Synthetics and cotton will ignite rapidly, potentially creating a serious, maybe deadly situation. I find this to be like not wearing a life jacket in a boat. Being around a campfire in anything but wool, aside from maybe thick denim, is not worth the risk.

For the hunter, especially those who choose to stalk their quarry, silence is golden. Merino wool is as quiet as your own skin. It doesn't make a whisper of noise, unlike other outerwear made from nylon, and polyesters. The swishing noise made from those carry great distances in the woods, and are a very un-natural sound to animals. Trying hard to keep your feet quiet while stalking, only to be busted by your arm dragging loudly against a branch.

On the sustainability front, Cascadians are quite conscious of our environmental footprint, nothing beats wool. Sheep are a key species in a holistic grazing system, turning grass into wool, which is made into clothing for humans. Truly renewable, sheep can be sheared season after season, and building topsoil as they graze and manure the range. Cotton, unless organic, is generally all Genetically Modified, and doused in herbicide and pesticide. An annual crop, the tilling of fields destroys soils and allows for erosion. Bamboo, hemp, and silk are also natural materials, and have their strong points, but I feel like Merino can  fill many different niches. Weights of fabrics are variable, from ultra light weight, to heavy weight outer layers. Because it is a natural fiber, Merino is compostable. No need to landfill Merino that is past its useful life. Toss it in the compost, into the attic for insulation, or stuff pillows with it. We have used Merino t- shirts as pillow cases while camping from garments that we no longer favour. Very nice! Plus Merino is safe for our waterways. Increasing awareness of plastic micro-fibers in our water ways is making the rounds on social media. These tiny fibers, largely from the lofty fleeces that outdoors people wear like Polar Fleece, are making their way through waste water treatment facilities and into our lakes, rivers and oceans. Aquatic species are incidentally ingesting these particles and being poisoned. I am certainly not comfortable with anymore plastics being released into our environment.

The one missing link of a Merino wool kit is a waterproof layer. I don’t know of any brand who makes a waterproof wool garment. If there is one, I would be of the assumption that it would be very heavy, an oiled, or waxed wool. This would be incredibly bulky and not breathable. To combat this issue, wearing the most breathable rain wear available is the best choice. My pick would be the First Lite Stormtight pieces. The most breathable on the market, it is made to layer over Merino base and mid-layers to create the perfect system of comfort for the Cascadian region. While First Lite is largely a hunting focused brand, I would venture to say that many other outdoor pursuits would benefit from their wares. Hikers, fisherman, skiers, dog walkers, bird watchers or any other hobby in Cascadia that entails hours outside in the elements would appreciate this system.

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