Staying Warm: The Art of Winter Layering

If you’re seriously into the outdoors, chances are you’ve at least heard of Merino clothing. And no doubt many of you will have some stashed in your wardrobe for when the temperature drops. But how much do you really know about it? And do you know how to get the most out of your Merino?

We talked to our friends at Australian Merino outdoor and adventure clothing company ioMerino to get all the inside information on what makes a good Merino garment, and how to layer for maximum performance. Considering they’ve been in the wool business for six generations, it’s fair to say there’s not much they don’t know when it comes to wool.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of the early explorers and adventurers, particularly those who explored the colder climates such as Edmund Hillary or Australia’s own Sir Douglas Mawson, you will have noticed them wearing wool. It’s always been the first choice for surviving the cold weather because it is a true high performance fabric. Back then, they didn’t have the technology we have now though, so they had to put up with rough, itchy woollen garments that kept them warm and alive, but didn’t do them any favours in the comfort department. Thankfully, technology has come a long way, and companies like ioMerino are right at the front of that, creating their own unique Merino fabrics from the best and most sought after Merino wool in the world. Yes, Australian Merino!

The first tip they offer is one a surprising amount of people overlook: underwear! “It’s amazing how many people put a whole lot of thought into what layers are going to perform best, then wear their regular undies” says Emma Michell who works in communications and product development at the Michell family owned business. 

“Those undies might be fine for everyday wear, but when you’re layering for high performance, the last thing you want is to compromise that with undies that don’t perform the same way. That’s why our boy briefs are one of our best sellers.”  There’s a good reason Search and Rescue teams across the world refer to cotton as ‘Killer Cotton’, and we’re going to go out on a limb and suggest this is the last place you want to feel the affects of ‘Killer Cotton’ when you’re out and about.

Merino layers also punch well above their weight in terms of warmth for weight. While they often feel relatively thin and lightweight, they deliver a lot more warmth than most other materials. Leggings in particular are a bit of a dirty word at ioMerino HQ. 

“Like a lot of people right now, I love colourful leggings” Emma says. “They’re a great way to make a statement and accessorise your outfit. Unfortunately, they’re almost never a great way to stay warm. Most fabrics, compression garments included, are not designed with warmth in mind. And in fact, they can actually make you colder, especially if they get damp. So if you’re going to be out in the cold, it pays to wear a good pair of Merino leggings.” 

As for the actual principle of performance layering itself, the concept is simple: a few lighter layers combined, rather than one or two thicker layers provides greater flexibility and comfort. 

“If you’re wearing a top and a thick, warm jacket, it’s very difficult to layer up or down for ‘in between’ temperatures. If you or the weather warms up a little, the jacket comes off and you’re down to a piece of clothing that maybe isn’t quite up to keeping you warm enough without it. Plus you get stuck carrying your heavy jacket” Emma explains. “Think of it a bit like a temperature gauge on a heater. The last thing you want is only two settings, low and high. With Merino you get a full scale of 1 to 10 and can adjust according to how you feel, and the Merino itself will breath and help you thermo regulate across a broader range of temperatures. And don’t even get me started on how much you’ll sweat up and stink if you’re wearing synthetics.” 

In simple terms, Merino acts a lot like the insulation in your roof, or the woollen under blanket on your bed. It can keep you warm in the cold weather, and cool in the warm weather. On a cool morning, one Merino layer will keep you warm, but as the temperatures rises, it will breathe and temperature regulate enough to help prevent you from overheating. So a single layer will work well from cool to warm, or warm to cool. This is especially handy when the sun is out during the day, but the temperature drops rapidly as you move into a cool, shady valley or the sun sets. To get maximum performance out of your layers, ‘texture’ is the key says Emma.

“You can wear pretty much any of our Merino layers combined to give you extra warmth, but for the ultimate in performance, what you’re looking to do is combine a textured fabric with a smooth one. And you don’t want them to be too loose either. Which is less flattering for some of us, I know, but more effective. But it’s all to do with how the layers trap air. So you’d wear something like one of our ribbed ‘second skin’ layers against your skin to trap a fine layer of air between you and your first layer. And then a smooth base layer against that to trap another layer of air.”

It’s those layers of air which can still breathe, but offer an extra layer of insulation, that bring out the best in performance layering and help your Merino layers deliver more warmth than you’d think is possible from something so thin and lightweight. 

There are, of course, any number of Merino clothing companies out in the market place, so we asked Emma for some final tips on what makes ioMerino different, and what people should look for when choosing a Merino layer.

“We’re the first to admit there’s lots of great Merino clothing out there. One of the most important things though is how it feels. If it’s a base layer it’s usually up against your skin, so you want something that feels soft and smooth. We don't think you should have to choose between comfort and performance when you can have both. Unlike a lot of companies, we don’t just buy our fabrics off the shelf from who knows where using who knows what, we buy the wool from trusted sources and make our own unique fabrics here in Australia. That way we know exactly what we’re getting and so do our customers” Emma says. “Dad is a wool man through and through so he takes this stuff pretty seriously” Emma laughs. 

For those who care about country of origin, something that’s become increasingly important to people in recent years, you’ll be happy to know ioMerino are based in South Australia, use 100% Australian wool, knit their fabrics in Melbourne and only the ‘cut and sew’ component is done outside of the country. “Our beanies and socks are all knitted in Australia, and the rest of our range gets made in Fiji” Emma confirms. “When most people think of Fiji they probably think beaches and palm trees, but they have a great little garment industry over there, and most importantly to us, it’s all unionised and we’ve personally been to the factories we use to make sure we’re doing everything ethically and not contributing to any of the problems we see happening in other places around the world. It’s something that’s very important to us.” 

So there you have it, some inside information on Merino and layering from a sixth generation wool person, who also happens to be an avid outdoor lover and skier. You can find more information and of course their great range of products at ioMerino.com.

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