Are merino wool base layers your new wardrobe hero?

The many virtues of this fabric make it worth investing in for winter.

The many virtues of this fabric make it worth investing in for winter

While researching antimicrobial and antibacterial fabrics for a recent project, I quickly realized why merino wool (wool from the merino sheep) is such a popular fabric for outdoors and performance apparel despite its relatively higher cost: it's breathable, feels relatively soft, and is naturally odour-resistant. According to Woolmark, a Australian not-for-profit trade organization, merino is much finer than other wool fibres, and thanks to its chemical structure, the fibre is wrinkle-, stain-, UV- and fire-resistant, and naturally elastic. As a fabric, it's also biodegradable and requires less frequent washings — in fact, as part of my project I was able to wear a 100% wool t-shirt for three non-consecutive days in August before feeling like I should put it in the laundry bin.

These days, merino wool base layers (fitted basics intended to provide extra warmth underneath your everyday garments) aren't only for days when winter sports and outdoor activities are on the schedule. Startups such as Toronto-based Unbound Merino are offering travel-ready, looser fit basics designed to be worn on their own, while classic performance brands such as Arc'teryx and Icebreaker are introducing patterned, colourful base layers that work for the backcountry but wouldn't look out of place in the city, either. 

The key for maximum versatility? Pay attention to the weight of your merino wool (or wool-blend) base layer. Styles labelled as light or midweight pieces will tend to be more versatile and better-suited for everyday wear and days that you'll be switching between indoor and outdoor activities. And while neutrals like solid black or grey are never a bad idea, you might want to keep an eye out for pieces with bolder colour combinations or interesting prints that could shine as a sporty top layer when worn solo. Finally, for ease of care you'll want to check that your picks are machine washable, even if you don't plan on laundering them after each wear.   

Here, six high-performance base layers that are stylish enough to wear on their own, too.

These knit pants feature a comfy, 4-way stretch and lighter-weight side panels with added breathability. Wear them as a base layer, or on their own. 

Kari Traa Rose Pants, $119.95, MEC

Available in six colours, this loose-fit men's crew neck tee by Toronto-based Unbound Merino makes for a versatile wardrobe essential that's designed for travel. It's made of 100% ultra-fine wool and is available in sizes S to XXL. 

Merino Wool Crew Neck T-shirt, about $85, Unbound Merino

A highly-rated style from Norwegian workwear brand Helly Hansen, this top features graphic lines, flat-stitched seams, and a perfect-for-layering half-zip design. It's recommended for a wide range of activities including camping, mountaineering and skiing. 

W HH Lifa Merino ½ Zip, $110, Helly Hansen

A heavyweight hooded top that could be worn solo or under your favourite sweater or blazer, this fitted style is perfect for facing the super-cold winter days ahead.

Men's BodyFitZone 260 Zone Long Sleeve Half Zip Hood, $180, Icebreaker

This fitted, long-sleeve top from North Vancouver-brand Arc'teryx is knit using (the trademarked) Nucliex yarn, which is made by "wrapping merino fibres around a nylon filament" core. The 170g-weight wool makes for an insulating, light to mid-layer piece that can be worn all winter long. 

Satoro AR Crew Neck Shirt LS Men's, $150, Arc'teryx

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.