It’s Time to Bring Wool Sweaters Back

The maligned, forgotten classic deserves a comeback.


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

 

Showing 17 comments
  • jim
    Reply

    I have a wool button down shirt that has been my go to cold weather outdoor shirt for decades. the thing is indestructible.

  • tom
    Reply

    I have spent most of my very long life wearing wool (mostly Filson) and everything you say is true. Synthetics have their place, but good wool is still the best. It seemingly lasts forever also. .

  • Eric
    Reply

    done & done…re: peak gear, i think a lot of us would do well to get back to basics. thanks for the encouragement 🙂

  • Hilary
    Reply

    Love this! So true. I live in Colorado, where the temperatures are usually pretty mild and the dry climate makes it feel even more mild—so I rarely even need to bust out my big, hand-knit wool sweaters. But a trip to Ireland in the winter made me realize exactly how practical they are! Yay for natural wool!

  • Mo
    Reply

    I love the way wool looks, but not the way it feels! Too itchy for me. (Unless there have been improvements. I’ve not tried wearing one in years.)

  • Abe
    Reply

    I got into merino wool for skiing, now I use it hiking and mountain biking. The way it moderates temperature must be experienced to be appreciated. I use Ibex a lot as well as I/O Bio and Patagonia wool. My wool biking socks, 15 years old are still going strong. The day I stepped thru ice and got a wet foot that I didn’t notice in less than a minute was convincing.
    My butt was always frozen on a wet ski lift till the first time I used merino long johns, no more! Wool for base and mid layers. Merino for the base or cashmere.

  • michael wickes
    Reply

    Its October and snowing here in Bozeman. My fireplace is burning and I’m in my fjallraven wool sweater. Its well made, hides English setter hair, salsa and wood bark, and is cumfy & warm. Yes its nice to wear a plain old sweater. I saved my dad’s cashmere sweaters and they are wonderful warm and most useful, albeit nurdy looking.

  • Hunter
    Reply

    I wasn’t aware that wool sweaters had ever fallen out of fashion… :0

  • tom
    Reply

    I found out early on that cotton sox were a bad decision for desert hiking here in Arizona’s sonoran desert. I wear wool or wool blend sox the year around here. and I hike in the sonoran desert year around, so even in the 100+ degrees july mornings I’m hoofing it in my wool sox.

  • jr
    Reply

    I ski in a wool Pendleton Western Snap shirt as a base layer. If it’s really cold I use a fleece as insulation on top of that. My son does as well. If you’re lucky you can get a Pendleton western shirt on eBay for less than $20.
    For 20 years I would snowboard in a $12 pair of army-navy surplus wool pants, still the best pants I’ve ever used snowboarding.

  • Theresa Northcutt
    Reply

    my dad wears a sweater a family friend knit for him 72 yrs ago. he has worn it skiing every winter since it was made. He never went to a synthetic layer.. he is looking forward to another year of warm skiing at age 91. He wore a filson wool jacket for 50 yrs.. it finally gave up the ghost.

  • Ryan D Surface
    Reply

    Once you go Merino you’ll never go back

  • Scott
    Reply

    Agree with you completely on wool. Even if wool isn’t hip, it’s functional. But I don’t know that us Adirondackers experience as much pressure to look slick and Instagram ready on the trails as one might in someplace like Telluride! So Caitlin gets my vote…

  • Megs
    Reply

    This was a great read! Nothing kept me warmer during winter rock climbing in California mountains than merino base layers. Add in the natural antimicrobial nature of wool, and I was an easy sell. When I was out with injury last year, I got into knitting again and was quickly amazed at how much wool fiber checks all of my outdoor requirement boxes – warm for its weight, doesn’t get stinky, durable (excepting your merinos & cashmeres of course), easy to repair, traceable supply chain, and will decompose and leave no trace when its time is done. Polyester, recycled or not, doesn’t look too great in comparison.

  • Bob Diefenbacher
    Reply

    First Lite makes pretty great merino clothing and most/all of it comes in solid colors.

  • H.Heckmaier
    Reply

    Interesting this sweater is made from Llama hair. We know that wool from merino sheep is so functional due to its hollow core fiber, warm when wet, no stink, pretty durable and totally renewable/sustainable, especially when its American merino. I have not heard anything about Llama fiber or read about its performance vs. merino wool?

  • A.W.
    Reply

    Yes! I always seem to be the only one sporting a wool sweater around the campfire, but nothing else in my quiver keeps me as comfortable is so many different types of weather.
    If you want to dip your toes in first, L.L. Bean sells a 100% Shetland wool sweater for around $45.

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