A few years ago I wanted to go all natural with my outdoor wardrobe. My quest started with my indoor environment getting rid of everything plastic and synthetic in my house including clothing, bedding and furniture to create a clean healthy living space. It seemed a contradiction that my outdoor gear set was plastic, toxic, synthetic. How did this fit with the Earthing/ Barefoot Walking/ Rewilding paradigm that was starting to take off?
At the time, I just wanted to feel good. All I knew was wearing wool vs. synthetic pile made me feel immediately more alive and energized. It was almost like trying to find the Holy Grail. What was this mysterious thing called NATURAL FIBER? What I would later find with research, my hypothesis was completely validated with science. Essentially, we breath through our skin. Synthetics block that process. Synthetics also rob electrons from our body and short circuit the electrical flow along our skin called Peizo Electricity. What is Forest Bathing if we aren’t able to absorb the negative ions from the air and synch our brains with the Shumann’s Resonance?
As a lifelong outdoor guy I had gone along with the trends like everyone else, believing synthetics offered better performance and less weight. The big buzz word “moisture wicking” was always used to kill any idea we should use natural fibers. Slowly my wool sweaters and socks were replaced with pile and polypropylene. There was a period you couldn’t find anything natural in an outdoor gear shop.
I cut my teeth with the best of the best outdoor leadership educators–Paul Petzholdt. For those who don’t know, Paul Petzholdt was Founder of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), and WEA (Wilderness Education Association). Petzholdt clearly favored wool for many aspects of the outdoor wardrobe. Petzholdt promoted lambs wool sweaters as the upper base layer, back before the advent of synthetic outdoor fabrics. And in pictures of his earlier years, clearly was wearing cotton windbreaker type fabrics for both pants and jacket. Paul was all about moisture wicking, and warned us to stay away from down.
I knew Paul Petzhold personally. I was the youngest of a 22 member, 6 week WEA Outdoor Leadership Training expedition at Cullowhee, North Carolina. I was a freshman in college and Paul Petzholdt was 76 years old teaching one of his last courses before he retired. During this expedition in Nantahala National Forest, he took me under his wing and made sure I had what I needed. He gave me first picks from a collection of wool sweaters which were plentiful in that day, before synthetic pile had caught on at the time of 1983.
The Synthetic Boom then Wool Revival
After that, the next few decades would see an explosion of synthetic fibers to the point there was hardly a stitch of wool in an outdoor shop, and then a new resurgence in wool interest by aggressive marketing campaigns put on by the brands Smart Wool and IceBreaker. This new thing called merino wool was the new kid on the block, used for base layer, sweaters, and socks.
Merino is a type of sheep that grows wool which is not itchy.which was made into socks and base layer…what we formerly called underwear. Back in the day, there was no such thing as a merino base layer and the only thing I knew about was synthetic type things like polypropylene. This ‘new’ thing called merino could be made into a sock, a sweater, or jersey knit material that was perfect for ‘tights’ (thinking yoga stretchy stuff) which is a fancy way of saying long underwear (or what came to be known as base layer).
But at the time I was discovering natural fibers for outdoor wear in about 2010, it was almost impossible to find even a wool sweater. I scoured the thrift markets and slowly pieced together a few odds and ends of wool sweaters. There was no longer such a thing as a cotton wind breaker. Everything was synthetic. So I got creative and found some not perfect fitting light cotton clothing for pants and windbreaker. I used a very oversized 5oz. tight weave cotton shirt which was placed over the wool base layer and insulation layer. Now I know cotton isn’t a legitimate fabric for outdoor use. It absorbs moisture like crazy and is worthless when it rains, and can cause hypothermia. However, I was experimenting. It was a starting point of at least finding some way of entering Mother Earth without the shackles of smothering synthetic fibers. And besides, I still had my trusty Gore Tex so called breathable jacket.
I started in the summer which was very forgiving. I wanted to see how my body reacted and felt when up against the true test of weather conditions. Besides my wardrobe, I had also made my own experimental camping gear including backpack, tent, and sleeping bag from natural fibers. I was no where near presentable or fashionable and didn’t even tell people what I was doing. I was a “closet camper” just going out to rediscover my place under the sun, hug some trees, write some poetry, (read one here), see how far I could take polar plunging in icey waters I wouldn’t have dared enter before I knew about all this biohacking stuff. I was thawing out in the sun, getting away from other people’s limited belief systems and dogmas about what was the right way to do things outdoors. So much craziness. First they tell us to wear heavy boots, then they find out, we should be going barefoot. It was things like that that had me so confused, and also curious as to what the real truth is. I wanted to discover the true Holy Grail of Outdoor Clothing.
I have since developed a complete outdoor wardrobe using natural fibers that rocks! Well almost complete…I still use synthetic for the rain shell. I have tested my system in many extreme weather conditions and have gotten it to a point where it excels throughout the year in my region of the Southern Appalachians.
From my years of outdoor training, I knew the basics of outdoor dress which I was applying during my creative invention process.
Outdoor clothing requires a three step system:
1) Base Layer
This is a thin fabric right next to skin which is highly stretchable and moisture wicking. You need a shirt and a pant both. It needs to be moisture wicking because if it traps moisture next to the skin, you will be colder. It needs to be skin tight because any trapped air will feel cold right next to skin. It needs to be stretchy because anything constricting will also hamper the body’s circulation and heat generating abilities. Water next to skin is a big cause of hypothermia….Dry next to skin creates a feeling of warmth and promotes homeostasis.
I bought some organic merino tops and bottoms from this place. Danish Woolen Delight.
2) Insulation Layer:
In the past this was ubiquitously wool. Then it became replaced with pile (synthetic) jackets and later also with down jackets (down encased inside synthetic fabric). This is the easiest part where to apply wool. Simple pull over sweaters do the job. It is not hard to use a layering system using two or more sweaters of varying sizes which nest over one another. Just try them on until you get a nice fit. You don’t want them to be too tight. If the outer one pulls on the inner one, you are wasting valuable insulating abilities. So therefore get another size up for the outer layer. Layering makes sense so you can adjust for the varying weather contitions. I like 100% wool, but if you get an 80% wool/nylon, blend, it still works.
3) Windbreaker/Wind and Rain Shell/ Outer Layer. This is both a windbreaker and a rain barrier. It was formerly made from tight woven light (5oz.) cotton until it became replaced across the board with synthetic. Historically, this cotton was sometimes coated with beeswax or linseed oil and called ‘Oil Cloth’.
A wind barrier is extremely critical to survival. Wind chill is a serious factor. No matter how much base layer and insulation layer one has, they will be inadequate with windy conditions.
Normally pants are fairly wind resistant automatically. However, bulky canvas type pants like jeans are no good. They restrict movement and this alone will hurt the body’s ability to stay warm. And pants which collect and hold moisture are no good, as anyone will testify who has been caught in them during a rainstorm. This rules out all cotton pants. In the past wool was common both for pants as well as for an over shirt. Wool is now making a slow comeback in these areas. Wool pants and a wool shirt which fits over a sweater is ideal. An excellent combo is a hemp/wool blend because the hemp provides strength, durability and the wool is still there for moisture wicking. These are relatively hard to find. I made my own from a rare and unique fabric composed of wool/hemp/and tencel. The fabric store has since gone out of business but my pants will probably live on for many years.
Synthetic fibers have been promoted as the cure to the problem. However, synthetic has at least as many problems of it’s own as the one’s it solves:
Synthetic can also be called ‘plastic’ since they are the same molecule and behave the same way. Synthetic windbreakers trap the moisture which is being released from the body during exercise. This moisture is in the form of both sensible (sweat) and insensible perspiration. This is moisture and gasses being released from the body during the normal process of cellular respiration. This means, the cells are breathing. The cells are both letting gasses out as well as taking gasses in from the environment. Synthetic fibers stop or hamper this process, which is needed for detoxification, homeostasis and feeling good.
Temperature and moisture regulation are intricatly connected. When moisture can’t escape, the body is struggling to figure out what to do. The whole process of homeostasis—staying at the right temperature—is thrown off. On one hand it is cold out there and warmth is needed. However, overheating is a problem, creating heat stress immediately, and later turning to cold stress which will happen when the sweaty body meets the cold air. And at that point, there may be no way to dry oneself when in the backcountry. And staying in synthetic clothing while at one point may make sense during certain conditions, at other times can be a real problem.
The difference between moisture wicking and breathability.
Moisture Wicking Fabrics vs. Breathable
Let’s look at the actual definition of moisture wicking
Polyester and Nylon are water resistant because they are made from materials with a particular chemistry that is similar to plastic. Instead of the water being absorbed by the fibre it sits in droplets on the fibre’s surface and moves around the fabric by running along the weave. Eventually, the water droplets reach the outside of the fabric where, if exposed to the air, they evaporate. Because the wicking material does not absorb moisture, the fabric will dry faster.
The dark side of this process is that these fabrics which wick moisture also hold moisture next to the skin (think plastic bag). The skin is somewhat suffocating because it is surrounded by plastic…a non-breathable material. The process causes the body to struggle in its moisture and heat regulation efforts.
I want to propose a new word “Synthetic Stress”. It is related to heat stress, but it is the specific way the body struggles for homeostasis when it is in the confines of synthetic fabric. One measureable result is a huge rise in heart rate, as shown on this chart.
But the real dilimna is even though the fabric can wick moisture, it doesn’t make you necessarily dry. The ideal situation would be to have a fabric that is both MOISTURE WICKING as well as BREATHABLE. Breathable fabric is that which lets moisture pass through it. Yes this seems like a contradiction. How can you let moisture pass through the fabric AND have the fabric keep you warm and dry?
Wool is truly moisture wicking as well as breathable.
Not only can wool wick sweat from the wearer, wool can move water vapor before it even turns to sweat! Wool is able to release moisture, not just through holes in the fabric, but through the fibers of the fabric itself.
Wool uses a process called “heat of sorption” to absorb and release moisture. As wool absorbs moisture from the atmosphere a natural chemical process in the wool releases heat, warming the wearer. In cold weather the natural crimp in wool fibers creates tiny pockets of trapped warm air that act as insulators, holding in heat next to the body. This same process has a cooling effect in warm weather, as wool releases moisture it absorbs heat from the wearer and the tiny pockets of air created by the crimp in the fiber trap cool air and insulate the wearer from warmer outside temperatures. As wool pull moisture away from your skin to evaporate you feel cool and dry even in hot weather.
Synthetic Fabric is moisture wicking. This means, it doesn’t absorb water. However it does TRAP moisture next to your body. The way it works is, since the fiber does not absorb water, it instead forces water to move through it. The water does not move through the actual fiber, but moves between the weave of the fiber. This kind of fabric is NOT breathable. Advertisers actually sometimes call it breathable, but this is only really in comparison to other versions of synthetic fabric. Compared to any natural fiber there is no synthetic fiber that is truly breathable. Moisture and gasses cannot pass through the fiber itself but must be forced through the spaces between where the fiber is woven. And this is not effecient. Most of the moisture that wants fo escape to the outside, away from the skin, is trapped next to the skin, thus disrupting the moisture/temperature mechanism the body knows so well. And the crazy thing, this actually makes you colder. I have coined a term called “humidity chill factor” which is equivalent to “wind chill factor”.