Optimal Performance

The latest in water-resistant wool outerwear

Sports

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Technological advancements are changing the way we wear wool. Lisa Griplas reports on innovation in the outdoor category.

Innovations in wool which has been long heralded as the fibre of choice for insulating next-to-skin baselayers, have led to a rise in the use of wool in outerwear apparel, such as jackets. The Woolmark Company and The Nanshan Group, one of China’s leading woollen textile enterprises, recently managed to create a 100 per cent wool fabric that protects the wearer from the elements.

The OptimTM fabric was developed at the Wool Development Centre, which The Woolmark Company and the Nanshan Group set up together in China in 2013. The resultant unique, high-performance fabric is resistant to both wind and water, making it suitable for outdoor wear and sports such as recreational sailing. The fabric is constructed at very high levels of thread density in warp, and weft using fine Merino wool yarns that have been stretched, but not set, during OptimTM processing. It is only when the fabric is wet-finished that the stretch is released causing the yarns to contract, thus leading to an extreme tightening of the fabric structure and the creation of the immensely dense fabric.

The fabrics made from these elastic Merino wool fibres, using optimised (and chemical treatment-free) spinning, weaving and finishing processes have enhanced water and wind resistant properties. They retain Merino wool’s finer qualities, such as breathability, and are machine washable.

Since the fabric’s unveiling, a number of global brands have been quick off the mark to get it into production, with Norwegian sports brand Devold even picking up a prestigious ISPO Award at the sports and outdoor trade show in Germany earlier this year. Devold’s Trollkyrkja jacket, commercially available next month for both men and women, uses OptimTM technology to construct a wind and rain resistant jacket for its active customer.

“We are very proud of this product; it is our first outer-layer product, and being able to launch an all-round, all-year jacket in 100 per cent Merino wool is very exciting,” said Devold Marketing Director Janne Strømmen. “After heavy field testing – both by the Devold team and our brand ambassadors – we all agree that this jacket is perfect for all-season use when hiking and engaging in outdoor activities. What appealed to us with this fabric is that it is made from 100 per cent Merino wool, and the final garment offers benefits making it comparable and superior to soft-shell jackets made from synthetics. The jacket breathes and regulates your temperature, and is flexible and comfortable to wear when being active or out and about in the city.”

Outdoor apparel brand Ibex from Vermont in the USA will also launch two similar products this year, constructed from the OptimTM fabric. The Pursuit Shell is mountain sport inspired and clean cut for athletic endeavours; the Pursuit Trench is urban focused with a modern and tailored trench style. “We first came across the OptimTM material at The Woolmark Company’s stand at the 2016 Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City,” said Vice President of Marketing at Ibex, Keith Anderson. “Instantly, we were impressed with the performance and richness of the OptimTM fabric. The fact that it is a high-performance fabric with weather resistant properties that is made from wool blew us away.

“The thing that really grabbed our attention about the fabric is that it provides us with a natural alternative – by using the weave structure to create the performance properties instead of the widely-used practices of DWR (durable, water-repellent) and topical chemical finishes. This water-resistance will last the life of the garment and not just 20 washes like DWR and other chemical finishes which break down quickly. From our testers’ points of view, the jacket did exactly what it needed to do, it kept everyone dry and allowed moisture vapour to escape without issue, all while allowing the quiet nature of the fabric to be appreciated.”

The Woolmark Company’s technical innovation team has continued to work on the development of the OptimTM fabric, which is now commercially available in three different weights: 180g/m2 plain weave; 240g/m2 warp rib; and 265g/m2 gabardine. A fourth option – the lightest of all at 130g/m2 – has a small percentage of nylon blended with the wool, to allow for extra resilience in the lightweight fabric. The differing weights and the inherent properties of the wool fibre allow for interest from the activewear, streetwear and smart-casual sectors of the broader global apparel industry.

“By focusing on consumer needs and through close partnerships with professional partners, we find new opportunities delivering high-quality garments to both outdoor lovers, explorers and workers in extreme climates and conditions,” says Strømmen on the importance of innovation. “To stay relevant to our retail partners and consumers, we have to show the ability to continue leading innovation and quality standards.”

Photography by Anna Pogossova.

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