October 06, 2022 4 min read
Throughout history, both wool and cotton garments have been with us - in one shape or another - providing protection and comfort in a variety of climates and needs. Both natural and sourced renewably, a consumer can find wool and cotton in sweaters, pants, tops, socks, hats and more - but understanding which to choose (and why) often leaves people with more questions than answers. So, let’s get right down to it: Why is wool better than cotton?
Starting with the basics, is wool warmer than cotton? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Thanks to a crimp in the fiber, along with other natural evolutions, wool is a world-renowned insulator with many warmth-oriented tricks up its sleeve (for example, wool actually becomes warmer on an atomic level when introduced to water or water vapor). Our sheep, in particular, boast an outstanding degree of crimp in each clip.
But let’s talk about the inverse - it’s commonly (and wrongly) believed that one can’t or shouldn’t use wool for warm or hot weather, but we have some evidence to prove otherwise. For one, domestic sheep are descended from a wild desert ancestor that had evolved to survive severe swings in temperature on a day-to-day basis. Wool became their “solution,” insulating and providing warmth during the freezing nights while dissipating sweat and heat during the middle of the day. Without the ability to withstand intense heat naturally, sheep would have struggled to survive in their original desert and arid homes. Desert nomads, to this day, still prefer wool robes and garments thanks to those cooling properties, along with other benefits such as odor resistance and the ability to wick away sweat and moisture.
Speaking directly about our Rambouillet Merino sheep, they must survive southwest Montana’s high-altitude conditions for 365 days of the year, in temperatures ranging from -40 to 90, and in weather conditions from blistering cloudless days to frigid midnight blizzards.
All in all, wool is a far better insulator and thermoregulator than cotton - in both hot and cold weather - with plenty of built-in breathability to boot when compared to cotton (or any textile, for that matter).
Branching off an earlier point, when introduced to water and water vapor, wool is an infinitely better choice than cotton. Unlike wool, which will wick away moisture and dry quickly, cotton becomes saggy and clammy and soaked, potentially amounting to a liability on a cold day (that extra moisture will sink your body temperature in minutes, sapping you of the energy and the ability to navigate demanding backcountry scenarios with confidence). Plus, tighter-knit and denser wool fabrics are rendered essentially waterproof, creating a natural, sustainable raincoat ready to take on snow, sleet and rainfall.
In terms of durability, wool again takes the cake: Bent back and forth repeatedly, a strand of polyester or cotton fiber will snap in approximately 3,000 iterations. By comparison, Merino Wool is more than six-times as durable, breaking once bent roughly 20,000 times over. The choice is simple for the savvy investor looking for maximum use and durability in fine outdoor apparel.
Plus, wool is naturally flame and fire resistant, meaning that any campfire aficionados in the room will appreciate knowing their gear can withstand accidental contact with embers and flame.
Another misconception people have about wool is that it will be both heavy and itchy - this is untrue (at least in the case of Duckworth, thanks to our sheep’s genetics and resulting proprietary Merino Wool textiles). Here are Duckworth - due to the efforts of our fourth-generation Montana sheep ranching founders, The Helle Family - our Merino sheep’s wool-producing genes are so refined and of such high quality that itchiness and cumbersome coarseness have all but been bred out of the fiber entirely. When you toss on a Vapor Tee or Vapor Briefs or a piece of 100% Merino Wool Maverick, direct-to-skin, you realize this is “not your grandma’s wool.” No itch, no scratchiness whatsoever.
Nope. Wool holds almost no odor, thanks to a naturally antimicrobial property found within the microscopic composition of this protein-based fiber. Essentially, bacteria - from sweat or other sources - can't get a foothold in wool and wool fabrics. However, cotton textiles can't say the same, harboring bacteria and other odor-causing microbiology. You'll be sweatier, clammier and stinkier in cotton, without fail. Easy choice, no?
Finally, among the many reasons Merino Wool is better than cotton are the sustainability and land-use aspects. On a large-scale cotton farm, thousands (if not tens-of-thousands) of acres are tilled and set aside for monoculture agriculture, a very unnatural practice with lasting impacts to soil health and degradation, local biology and ecology, waterways and more. By comparison, sheep that are properly managed and moved from pasture-to-pasture in appropriate timeframes not only give back to the ecology (by way of providing organic matter and nutrients for the landscape, munching back noxious and invasive plants, packing the soil tight when in large herds, and keeping native grasslands devoid of forest encroachment), but animal-based agriculture also allows large swathes of land to remain open and relatively unmanaged (ideal for maintaining wild migration corridors and native ecology).
Not to mention, our sheep regrow their fleece every year via this symbiotic interaction with the landscape, creating a full loop of sustainable and renewable benefit.
When comparing wool and cotton, the only con that comes to mind are the (relatively) special requirements of washing wool clothing; cotton garments can and should be machine washed without much exception, whereas wool requires hand washing or split cleaning in most cases. However, this should be viewed through the context of luxury, performance goods requiring needs different from of those of lesser quality, the same way one might buy premium-grade gasoline for their sports car and regular-grade for their sedan.