The use of wool in textiles dates back to around 1500 BC, making wool one of the oldest natural fibres in existence. And yet despite its extensive history, designers and manufacturers continue to innovate, diversifying its use at the same time as refining its inherent properties. Merino wool is a natural wonder: it is soft to the touch, yet hardwearing; its high breathability and absorbency allow it to perfectly regulate the body's temperature. It stands to reason, then, that Merino can still be found in wardrobes the world over, even in the form of shoes.
Thanks to our more active lifestyles and casual approach to dressing, runners are undoubtedly one of the most popular items in today's global market. New Zealand-born, San Francisco-based brand Allbirds are taking them to new levels of comfort and functionality by crafting them from Merino wool. Milled in Italy, assembled in Korea, and adhering to strict ethical and sustainability standards (the materials bear a carbon footprint 60% per cent smaller than synthetics), Allbirds runners are simple in design – free of logos and unnecessary details – and have been dubbed the most comfortable runners in the world.
The success of wool in sneakers lies not only in the fibre's natural properties, but also in its ability to be constructed in a way that aids performance. For example, melting yarn together and three-dimensional knitting, the entire upper can be free of cutting and sewing. Comfortable for wearing next to skin by using a 100 per cent Merino wool yarn as an inner surface layer, the latest spinning technology helps to knit the fabric onto the outer face of the shoes' upper, enhancing the abrasion resistance.
Adaptive, innovative and energetic are three words used by Adidas Senior Director of Running Apparel and Customisation Craig Vanderoef to describe what Adidas calls the greatest wool-made running shoe ever: Ultra BOOST. The state-of-the-art ARAMIS testing system – also used by top engineering institutions such as NASA, Boeing and Audi – was used to measure the movement and expansion of a runner's foot and ensure Ultra BOOST provides a full adaptive running experience.
"This was achieved through its Adidas Primeknit upper and innovative Stretch Web outsole to complement the unrivalled Energy Return of its BOOST midsole," explains Vanderoef. "A runner's foot can remarkably expand up to 10 mm or more in width while running. When restrained, this expansion can cause severe discomfort, friction and the leading injury in running, blisters. Unlike other leading knit technologies the innovative Adidas PRIMEKNIT pattern of Ultra BOOST provides comfortable support in less expansive areas of the foot and adaptive stretch where it's needed to deliver maximum comfort." Available in eight colours for women and five for men, Ultra BOOST is available online and in Adidas stores across the world. The innovative running shoe taps in to the natural properties of wool, including natural elasticity, breathability and the all-important resistance to odour.
Italian luxury brand Ermenegildo Zegna's best-selling sneaker is the Sprinter 300, a shoe made from its patented TechMerino fabric. Zegna notes that the material ensures that the wearer's feet never become too hot or cold, thanks to its breathability, and that the material's lightness makes the sneaker exceptionally comfortable, and helps you to stay lighter on your feet. Zegna's TechMerino is crafted through an advanced process and is used throughout much of its casual and active collections, such is the diversity and adaptability of the material.
Photography by Anna Pogossova of the Ermenegildo Zegna TechMerino wool sneakers. Styling by Kelly McAvoy.
From Merino wool base layers to breathable underwear: don’t head outdoors without reading these tips
A guide to wearing and incorporating Merino wool base layers into your wardrobe