Testing out modern merino wool: can it lighten your load?

Lately my social media feed has been full of ads for high-tech Merino wool clothes. I'd honestly just ignored them until our last trip to Japan. The biking leg of that trip meant that there was very little room for clothing beyond our cycling gear. So when one of these wool ads promised shirts, socks, and underwear that only need to be washed every couple of weeks, I was intrigued, skeptical, and a bit grossed out all at once. The lure of all that extra space in my bags was too much to ignore so I decided to buy several different pieces and test them out at home and on our recent trip to Mexico.

 

👕 Shirts 

Short answer: enthusiastic YES

While I do love a suitcase full of cute shirts, I feel like some combination of Steve Jobs' fashion, millennial "normcore", and the recent minimalism fad have made it absolutely fine to wear the same look every day, provided it's clean and not stinky. Since shirts comprise a fairly large percentage of my suitcase when I travel, this seems to be the place with the most potential for space savings.

I bought a Smartwool T-shirt from Backcountry.com and wore it every day for two weeks. I should note here that I shower every day and wear deodorant. At the end of two weeks the shirt didn't stink at all. Given that you're wearing the same thing for so long, stains from eating and cooking become a very real concern. If you're a bit more careful than normal (put on that apron when you're cooking!) you can avoid most of them. But if you still spill, I found a bit of diluted Woolite could quickly spot-clean individual stains.

The shirt is soft and comfortable and doesn't have the scratchy feeling people associate with wool. It's a bit more silky and slippery feeling than cotton, but not to the point of looking like one of those synthetic Under Armour coach shirts.

Then I remembered that one of the ads mentioned that you could even use this shirt for the gym. So I decided to add that into the mix. While I can confirm that yes, in fact, the shirt did not actually stink after the gym, your own sweat levels and saltiness can lead to some white residue once the shirt is dry. If I were going to wear this shirt to the gym during my travels, I'd actually bring two shirts along so I'd be free to rinse one out after the gym and give it a day to hang dry.

 

 🧦 Socks

Short answer: Yes, but with caveats

Socks don't take up a ton of room, but I'll take any space I can get. I usually wear the no-show sport kind, but in Winter I switch to thicker, taller models. I bought 2 pairs of each and wore them on alternating days (including to the gym). When not on my feet, I turned them inside out in a well-ventilated area so they could air out. I was quite surprised that they never really got stinky, even after two weeks of alternate-day wearing. 

Now the caveat: despite zero changes to my daily routine (e.g., I never shower at the gym, I always wear the same shoes, etc.) I ended up with my first case of athlete's foot in years.

After buying myself a tube of foot cream, I decided to do some more research and realized that none of the manufacturers' published care instructions would ever lead to the fungus in the socks being killed: you can't bleach them, you can't dry them on High, or wash them on Extra Hot/Sanitize. This long-form research document basically says if you can't get the garment up to 60ºC (140ºF), you aren't going to be able to kill the fungus spores. Since most water heaters in the US are set to 48ºC (120ºF), even washing on Hot wouldn't work unless you've got a temp-boosting sanitizer washing machine.
Interesting sidenote from that research document: always keep your used gym socks (and other laundry bound for a hot water/bleach washing) in their own dirty clothes basket no matter what material they're made from. Fungal spores are easily transmitted in the laundry hamper onto nearby clothes.

I tweeted several of the major manufacturers about this and eventually heard back from Unbound Merino, who advised using your washing machine's Sanitize function, if it has one. They also reiterated that you should not dry their socks in a dryer. Furthermore, wool fiber has natural coatings which resist odor and bacteria, so chemical sanitizers aren't recommended either because they might strip or damage this coating.

After much research, it looks like the Sanitize mode on my washer heats up to 76ºC (170ºF) when it's in Cotton mode, so this should do the trick. If this isn't an option for you, you could also heat up a pot of water to 60ºC (140ºF)+ and drop the socks in there for a few minutes before laundering them on a cooler setting in Woolite. Since the big selling point of these garments is travel, what are you supposed to do when you're in a hotel room? Well, a normal drip coffee maker's heating element holds coffee at 75ºC, so could use this as a "hack" for sterilizing your socks. But do pour the hot water into the sink with the socks, don't be nasty and put your socks into the carafe!! In Asia, the in-room hot water dispenser for tea would work similarly.

I also looked into UV sterilizers, but from everything I've read the home models are really only effective on very flat, hard surfaces and wouldn't work on clothing. A long discussion of other wool cleaning and sanitizing ideas is here.

 

👙 Underwear

Short answer: No

While clean underwear takes up plenty of space in my bag, wearing one pair of underwear for days or weeks at a time is just a hard no for me. Even in Japan where there's Washlet toilets everywhere, even if I shake it for 90 seconds when I'm done, and even if the weather is mild, there's just too many bodily fluids that have nowhere else to go. Furthermore, I'm ridiculously picky about my underwear based on its ability to prevent chub-rub while I'm out exploring for hours on end in various weather conditions. None of the available cuts in Merino underwear have the necessary design to do that.

I currently have quite a few pairs made out of quick-drying microfiber and synthetics, and if I'm packing light I'll wash those in a hotel sink and let 'em dry overnight (and maybe finish them off with the hotel hair dryer if they're not quite done).

But if you'd like to give multi-day underwear a whirl, I'd love to hear how it goes. 






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