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In the outdoor industry, wool has been gaining popularity for several years, as more and more apparel brands start to incorporate it into everything from undies to puffy jackets to shorts to shoes.
But the reality is that as a global commodity, wool has been waning in popularity for years. Data from the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) shows the global market in a dogged decline for the last half century, just now leveling off at 40 to 50-year lows. The American industry has seen less of a decrease, but sales still drop by a couple of percent every few years.
Much of the world’s wool ends up in car, airplane, home, and office interiors as carpeting and upholstery, and that sector of the wool market has remained more or less stable over the past fifteen years. The apparel market, however, has been subject to competition from mass produced synthetic fibers both in the U.S. and abroad.
It might seem like people are just now realizing that wool is a performance fiber, but in reality, that’s not new information: Wool has long been known as naturally elastic, water-repellent, stain-resistant, and odor-resistant and has remarkable color fastness and insulation properties. For decades, wool was popular for suits and overcoats for those very reasons, but its share of the apparel market remained limited to outerwear thanks to one missing ingredient: comfort.
“When I was a child, wool was always really itchy,” said Dave Petri, VP of marketing at Farm to Feet. “That’s not the case with today’s wool, but we’re still living with that old stigma.”
Not your grampa’s wool
Just in the last decade or so, finer diameter wools, fiber treatments that prevent shrinkage, and new knitting technologies have brought wool next-to-skin but have yet to bring it top-of-mind for most consumers. That’s especially true during the warmer months when wool sales tend to drop off, despite the fabric’s ability to wick moisture and stifle odor.
“The paradigm is slowly shifting, but it hasn’t quite reached a tipping point. Our goal is getting people to realize that wool is a year-round performance fiber,” said Petri.
Thanks to both better technology and marketing and consumer education efforts from industry leaders like Farm to Feet and SmartWool, wool is undergoing a resurgence within the outdoor market, said Rita Samuelson, wool marketing director of the American Wool Council. People who abandoned wool for synthetics are starting to take notice of the innovations that have made wool competitive, and in many cases, superior to man-made fabrics.
Wool is also becoming more prominent in high fashion apparel, which tends to trickle down into everyday wear, according to Jody Carlson, U.S. sales director for SmartWool. While the outdoor industry was an early adopter of merino, Carlson said SmartWool is seeing plenty of growth from consumers outside the core adventure crowd.
“That might be someone who works on Wall Street and spends eight hours a day in his dress shoe and doesn’t want slimy wet feet any more than someone who spends the whole day on a trail,” he said.
Whether you’re offering apparel for an alpine ridgeline or a Paris runway, brand story is vital to making sales, and environmental sustainability has become an important part of that. With wool, that’s a given.
“Wool is a natural fiber and it’s biodegradable,” said Samuelson. “There’s a consciousness in this day and age, especially the outdoor industry, about social and environmental impact.” Wool, she said, fits those criteria, and she expects demand will increase in the future as conscious shoppers become better educated about wool.
While synthetics will always have a place in outdoor apparel, the fabric of the industry is changing, and the future of wool is bright.