Remember those great big woolly sweaters your nana would knit for you as a kid?! They’d be so freaking itchy! Now we’re all grown up, we LOVE a good woolly sweater. It keeps us so toasty on a hike. But why, sometimes, is even merino wool itchy?
Read on below and we will take a deep dive into the fascinating world of wool. Why exactly does it irritate our skin? More importantly, what can we do about it? And how can we do it for free?!
Don’t be sheepish – get reading.
Why is Wool Itchy?
The reason wool products tend to be itchy is that the fibres that make up the material are quite large in diameter. Unlike silk or cashmere, which both have incredibly fine fibres.
The broader diameter fibres of wool are less able to bend when they come into contact with a surface. Like your skin, for instance. This means they will prick a little, causing that classic itchy wool feeling.
Fibre diameter is measured in something called microns. To give you a comparison of fibre thickness:
● Human hair = 60-80 microns
● Regular sheep wool = 30-32 microns
● Merino wool = 14-24 microns
So, if you think your woolly jumper is itchy, imagine one made out of human hair! Or on second thought, don’t. Let’s move on.
Why Choose Merino Wool?
Did you just splash the cash on some merino wool? Good choice. We love the stuff. Of all the types of wool shorn from the shoulders of sheep, the Merino breed has by far the finest diameter. That’s why a merino sweater is more expensive and less itchy than your grandad’s old rag wool Aran Island sweater.
Some other reasons to choose merino wool are as follows:
Merino wool is uniquely odour resistant. It traps smells caused by bacteria, meaning you can get away with wearing your clothing for longer.
The fibres of this smart wool are porous, meaning they transport sweat and moisture away from the skin as vapour – keeping you dry and comfortable.
Merino has an unbelievably high weight-to-warmth ratio and the natural crimps in the fibre retain heat very well. At the same time, it’s breathable enough to stop you from overheating.
The Types of Merino Wool
The fine strands of merino wool bend much easier and cause far less irritation than regular wool. That said, although merino wool is the least itchy, it isn’t always without an itch. You see, not all merino wool is created equally. There is, in fact, a big difference between the wool quality of the various types of merino sheep. Their wool ranges from coarse to ultrafine.
Merino sheep originated in 12 Century Spain – or earlier in Morocco, depending on who you ask. But today, the highest-quality merino wool is found in Australia. The farmers down under have put a whole lot of time and effort into selective breeding to engineer uber-soft wool.
The wool of any merino sheep is technically merino wool but not all merino sheep are bred purely for the quality of your wool. Some merino wool is far from ideal for wearing as a base layer.
So, just because a product is made from merino wool, it doesn’t mean it will necessarily feel like it. Someone could be pulling the wool over your eyes!
How to Make Wool Less Itchy?
Wool is animal hair. So what would you do if your own hair was brittle and inflexible? You’d give it a little bit of tender loving care, wouldn’t you? That’s exactly what you need to do to make your merino sweater or socks softer.
Be like a sheep and follow this technique. It requires nothing that you won’t already have in your kitchen and bathroom.
1. Fill a basin or tub with cold water and throw in a couple of teaspoons of white vinegar
2. Turn your merino item inside out and soak it in the water for at least 15 minutes
3. Take it out and give the itchy item a good lather with the same conditioner you’d use on your hair
4. Leave the conditioner to soak in and do its work for at least 30 minutes
5. Rinse out the suds with cold water – be gentle, press rather than wring the water out
6. Allow your woolly friend to air dry – avoid the dryer
7. Place the dry jumper in a ziplock back and leave it in the freezer overnight
8. Take it out, let it defrost and slip on your new softer merino wool item
This simple technique works in a two-pronged approach. The vinegar and conditioner soften the longer fibres. The freezing prevents the shorter fibres from sticking out too much.
Another Way to Reduce Merino Wool Itch
Another easy way to reduce the itchy feeling you may get from wool on your skin is to wear another base layer. To create a barrier between your skin and the itchy fibres.
Often merino is the ideal base layer due to its high warmth-to-weight ratio. But if you find it too irritating then choose a synthetic (non-itchy) easy wicking fabric.
If you’re an avid outdoor fan, you will know all about the benefits of layering for heat and moisture control. Whether it keeps you warm and dry from the inside and from the outside. If you’re new to the hiking world, getting your head around the basics of a good layering system will improve your experience considerably.
Final Thoughts: Ditch the Itch
As you’ve seen, the thing that makes merino wool itchy is the fibres of the fabric. To solve the problem all you need to do is put a little work into softening and taming them. It’s worth the hassle. Few fabrics are as suitable for outdoor wear as merino. In terms of weight, warmth and wicking ability it has few competitors.
Sure, it would be better if all-wool felt as smooth as silk – but we can’t always get what we want. There have to be some sacrifices.