Best Merino Wool T-shirt

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Posted March 3, 2014 by Joel Schopp in Apparel
smartwool crew

The Best Merino Wool T-Shirt is the Smartwool Crew Shirt – Short Sleeve.  Women can get the same shirt in a women’s v-neck, our recommendation is identical for both.

Why a Merino Wool T-shirt — What’s Wrong with My Cotton T-shirt?

Cotton T-shirts are fine if you plan to sit indoors in a dry climate controlled chair.  They are cheap and they are durable.

The problem comes as soon as you start to sweat or as soon as it starts to rain.  Cotton absorbs water and never lets it go.  This makes cotton terrible in rain, terrible when you are active, terrible in hot weather, and terrible in cold weather.  In the mountains they call cotton death cloth due to the effect of being too hot, then being soaked from your own sweat and getting too cold.  Too hot one minute, too cold the next.  In the mountains that can make you miserable at best and in extreme situations can be the bad kind of difference between alive and dead.

The only times I have been cold and shivering in the rain, with my shirt sticking to me like caramel on a candy apple, have been in a cotton T-shirt.  The only time I’ve had heat exhaustion has been while wearing a cotton T-shirt.

So that cotton race T-shirt you got, or that cotton T-shirt of your favorite band, save it.  Save it for the days when you have to do Excel Spreadsheets or TPS Reports.  Cotton T-shirts are great for writing TPS reports.

Why Merino Wool?

Merino Wool is the best fabric available, here’s why:

SCIENCE

Scientific studies have shown wearing Merino wool will keep you cooler in the heat, lower your heart rate, keep you from sweating longer, stabilize your body temperature, make you smell better, be more fire resistant, and be better protected from the sun than wearing polyester.  This is from peer reviewed studies that have consistently shown that merino wool outperforms polyester and cotton in a broad range of conditions.

WOOL MYTHS BUSTED

Isn’t wool itchy?  Not anymore, sheep have gotten better over the years and their wool has gotten finer and finer until now wool is one of the softest materials you can put against your skin.  The Smartwool Crew Shirt feels softer than most cotton or polyester T-shirts.

Don’t I have to dry clean it?  No, merino wool fibers in this shirt have been pre-shrunk.  Machine wash, tumble dry low in the dryer.  I’ve even forgotten and left the dryer on high several times, not recommended, and my shirts seem no worse for the journey.

Why does wool come in dingy colors?  Some people like the more natural colors, but modern wool fabrics come in the full rainbow of colors from bright red to purple to blue to green to white.

THICKNESS & DURABILITY

This crew shirt holds up quite well. With wool you can use the shirt through its natural life until you have worn holes in it from constant abuse.  This is in contrast to polyester shirts.  Polyester fails in durability because you often have to get rid of your polyester shirts due to smell long before they are actually worn out.  You know it’s that time when you take your shirt out of the dryer and it still smells like B/O, or when you notice that you reek five minutes after putting the shirt on.  We regularly rock climb in this shirt, hike in this shirt, bike in this shirt, and pretty much wear it every time we are outside.

Smartwool and others also make a microweight short sleeve with 150g/m^2 weight.  We don’t like it as much.  That weight is semi-transparent which can be embarrassing in public situations where a transparent shirt is inappropriate.  The 150 weight microweight shirts aren’t very durable, we have shredded quite a few of them.  Stick to the slightly thicker fabrics like in the crew shirt and you’ll be fine.

FIT & APPEARANCE

The shirt looks like a normal T-shirt, except softer and without any visible brand advertising.  We really like that Smartwool keeps their logo in a little soft tag at the bottom of the shirt.  It feels good to pay for something and not become a billboard for a brand.

Dirtbag Option?

If you don’t mind smelling a bit worse and having almost, but not quite, the level of moisture management then polyester might be for you.  Polyester offers most but not quite all of the thermal & evaporative performance of merino wool at a fraction of the cost.  In particular we think the Russell Athletic Men’s Short Sleeve Dri-Power Tee can be had on the cheap and is well made.  It is certainly a ton better than a cotton T-shirt.

But What About Other Wool Shirts?

Smartwool’s short sleeve crew is a bit better than the other merino wool short sleeve shirts.   However, the winner here is really merino wool in general.  There are several other companies that make merino wool shirts, and we like most of them.  Icebreaker & Ibex specialize in merino clothing and make very good products.  Some other brands like Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Stoic, and Kuhl  also make merino wool shirts that are also very good.

In our testing Smartwool makes the best merino wool T-shirt but these other 6 brands still produce a shirt better than others we have tried.

Reviews

If you look at reviews from across the web on smartwool shirts people love them.  Because clothing lineups change from season to season it is difficult to find reviews for a particular shirt.

9 backcountry.com reviewers gave the shirt 4.7 out of 5 stars

 


About the Author

Joel Schopp

Joel is a a rock climber, canoer, backpacker, camper, father, skiier, programmer, swimmer, cyclist, zipliner, kayaker, and adventurer in no particular order. He is president of the Central Texas Mountaineers, Texas regional coordinator for the Access Fund, and sits on the board of the non-profit Ascend Outdoor Adventures. Joel wants you to have the best gear so you don't think about your gear and instead focus on the wonder that is the outdoors.

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