The most-mocked member of the outdoor community isn’t, as you might believe, the kook or the jerry. It isn’t the stoned liftie or the suburnt tourist. It’s the classic wool sweater, maybe with a deer or a few skiers knitted into it. You only see them when they rear their cozy, nubby heads at gaper day, at parties dedicated to laughing at how ugly they are, or stacked up in thrift stores with rear-entry ski boots and decomposing wetsuits.
They used to be the layer of choice for everyone from Yosemite climbers of lore to Aspen skiers of the 1980s, but somewhere along the line they fell out of vogue, replaced by synthetic, machine-washable quarter zips misleadingly known as “fleeces,” despite the fact that they usually come from a derivative of plastic rather than, you know, an actual sheep.
I religiously wear wool socks skiing and hiking. Unless I’m running (which usually means I won’t be out in the wilderness for more than a few hours), I wouldn’t dare let anything else touch my feet. Wool keeps me warm even when it’s wet, it lasts forever, it (usually) doesn’t smell, and–bonus!–it’s possible to harvest sustainably. (Ever trace polyester to the source? It’s most commonly made out polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic derived from crude oil. Gross.)
So when and why did we leave wool sweaters to grandparents’ closets and costume parties? It’s time to re-introduce the most classic layering piece to your outdoor wardrobe, because it never should have left.
Last winter, I was at an outerwear test in Utah and our massive group took a mellow, in-bounds evening tour to eat fondue atop Brighton mountain at sunset (and, of course, to test out gear on the uphill). Everyone was kitted out in the newest, techiest ski clothing out there. Except my friend Caitlin, a ripping skier from the Adirondacks with a penchant for anything low-maintenance, and brightly colored. She had a giant hand-knitted, wildly patterned wool sweater in her pack. When the sun went down, everyone shivered in their featherlight down and Gore-Tex, and Caitlin grinned in her chunky, super-cozy sweater. It wasn’t lightweight or slick, but it was warm, comfortable, fit in her pack, and looked awesome.
Cotopaxi crowd-funded a modern take on the do-anything wool sweater, the Libre Sweater, made of llama wool, for those of you who aren’t quite ready to jump on the throwback, hand-made train. It’s lightweight and packable–I’ve carried it into the backcountry on multiple occasions–with a super-classic design. Tiny holes in the back knit to keep your back cool and well-ventilated with a pack on (or when you’re just in that weird cold-but-still-sweating place). It’s awesome for skiing, hiking, hanging around camp, cold climbing days, and bike rides around town, it doesn’t pick up smell, and when I sweat in it, it still keeps me warm. No, it’s not some super-technical mid-layer with vents and special panels of down and taped zippers. But you know what? That’s why I like it.
In fact, you don’t even need to buy a wool sweater from a dedicated outdoors brand to benefit from what the Libre’s got going on. The best part about a wool sweater, just like a flannel shirt, is that it’s just a normal piece of clothing. I like technical clothing that makes me look like a way better athlete than I am just as much as the next gal, but it’s easy to get just a little sick of slick. Sometimes I just want to wear clothes, not gear. And the wool sweater, weather you’re layering up at the campfire, setting out on a brisk alpine start, or spinning in-bounds laps, will do you proud. Reindeer and pom-pom hat wearing skiers not necessary–but they certainly spice things up a bit.
Photos by Nationaal Archief and Vilém Heckel