Gear review: Merino t-shirts

Jouni Laaksonen 14.5.2018

I have used thin merino t-shirt every single day for year and two months now. I conducted a five months long test for Finnish outdoor magazine Erä last year, and after the test was published, I have continued using the same test shirts. What have I learned?

Merino_InariJaSupernatural_Hiekkarannalla_DSC09793_KuvaUnnaLaaksonen

Does wool sound like a material for cold conditions? Thin merino wool is great also in warm summer days. Inari and Super.natural on beach.

I’ve been a fan of thin, lightweight merino t-shirts for more than a decade. They are the perfect choice to so many occasions: everyday life, day hiking, travelling etc. The t-shirt has to be really thin, like 140 to 180 g/m², and then, surprisingly,

+wool is not hot, but suitable for even hot weather.

+At the same time wool is not cold even when it gets wet, so it is perfect for cool days, too.

+Thin merino wool dries fast.

+Wool is natural product that does not leave microscopic plastic residue.

+Wool cleans itself, just hang the shirt out for the night and you can use it again tomorrow. Meaning you do less laundry, which is good for the planet (saves water and energy).

+And merino wool does not itch, like other kinds of wool does.

Nothing new about those points, merino fans have known these for long time.

But what I started to suspect during the test period has now become more clear: shirts made of 100% merino wool clear themselves of odor better than those made of 80% merino wool + 20% poly-something, or similar.

 

Quest for 100% merino

The strong trend among merino clothing is that manufacturers blend merino wool with synthetic fibers, or natural non-woolen fibers (like Tencel/Lyocell which is made from wood). Icebreaker no longer produces thin 100% merino t-shirts – or let’s say it does not produce them right now. Their t-shirts are as thin and well-working as the old ones, but not 100% merino any more. Mons Royale, which won my test, has the same philosophy. Super.natural offers a huge variety of different t-shirt models and colours, but it uses even bigger percentage of synthetic fibers along with merino.

(There were some 100% merino t-shirts in the test, too, like Aklima, and new Finnish brand Inari. Both of these had the disadvantage of narrow collection compared to those mentioned above, that’s the main reason why neither of them won my test.)

Now, I have understood the manufacturers add other fibers because very thin merino wool is susceptible to abrasion. Blended fibers resist wear and holing better. That’s very good, of course.

But I have three ten year old 100% merino Icebreakers and two of them are still good as new. One of them got holes in the back hem, which had worn so thin my fingers one time went through when I was pushing the shirt hem under my trousers. This was only after almost ten years of use. That’s not a bad score in my opinion.

I have to admit during this decade of ownership I have used these Icebreakers sparingly: mostly on day hiking in Finland spring, summer and autumn, sometimes on longer backpacking expeditions, too, and on every journey abroad, like Greenland, Tenerife, the Alps, Norway, Madeira. Still, they have got lots of use.

Icebreaker 100% merino shirts in Norway/Steindalsbreen glacier, Greenland/Qaqortoc, Tenerife/hotel, Tenerife/hiking.

It’s wonderful when you don’t need to pack many t-shirts! Just two or three is enough. Neat merino shirt is okay on trails and in restaurants, and they do not have any smell after a night of airing.

Now, what I want to say to manufacturers is: Do develop your products, that’s very good. But do not remove thin 100% merino t-shirts from your collections! I believe there are many of us who like the idea there’s 0% of plastic in our clothes. And the 100% merino shirt just airs itself better than 80% merino.

I promise not to complain if my thin 100% merino t-shirt wears out in eight or ten years. I promise to understand that it is not as durable as a shirt with combination of wool and other fibers, and use the shirt more sparingly.

 

Case Ruskovilla

Ruskovilla is a smallish Finnish manufacturer. They produce 100% merino wool underclothes, which are a bit thick to my taste, meaning a bit too warm for my kinds of activities. But they sent for the test a silkwool t-shirt, and that was an interesting product! Silkwool t-shirt is as thin, or even thinner, than the thinnest of test shirts.

All of the 30+ test shirts were pleasant to skin – well, a couple of them needed to be washed for one time before they were non-itchy. But Ruskovilla silkwool was the most pleasant to skin, I have to say.

The disadvantage is that this shirt is more of an undergarment, not so good-looking as those mentioned above. But a great advantage is that there are 100% natural fibers, no poly-anything (70% merino wool, 30% silk). A big plus is the pleasant sensation of course, but also the company philosophy which is very ecological.

They tell you openly there is no chemical treatment against moths and beetles – and advice you how to store the shirt in the product bag. Ruskovilla also skips superwash treatment (treatment against felting up) intentionally. They feel it is better for the environment not to use these kinds of chemicals. They feel it’s better to tell clients that this shirt is not as durable as some other, please use with care.

This is what I’d like to get from other manufacturers, too. Durable and easy merino-blend shirts are needed, but also more ecological 100% merino shirts are needed.

 

The test

What I wrote above is the beef of this post. But if you are interested, here is how I conducted the test I mention above. So, in March 2017 we sent out invitations to test, and got over 30 different shirts from 11 manufacturers.

Some details from the test: Every shirt was drowned and then left to dry. Differences in drying speed were big. Some models of Mons Royale have integrated microfiber cloth for cleaning eyeglasses.

The test was published in magazine Erä in September 2017. After a lot of pondering I decided there will be six factors that sum up the product’s overall score:

  1. The more versatile the shirt is the better. Meaning for example if the shirt looks base layer shirt it does not have so many kinds of use as another shirt that looks like cool t-shirt that you can use as well on hiking trail as in hotel restaurant.
  2. Naturally the shirt has to feel good on skin. There was not much variation here, but some.
  3. If there were only natural fibers in the shirt, this was good. A minor minus for those that contain also poly-something. I thought this would be mostly eco-wise, but now after more than one year’s everyday use I’m convinced there’s also difference in odor.
  4. The larger, more versatile collection the brand has, the better. (This factor’s importance was small.)
  5. There was variation between the shirts in staying neat. Neat after five months of heavy use was naturally good. (And they mostly look still neat, after a year and two months of use.)
  6. The quicker to dry, the better, of course.

In the test I used these old Icebreaker t-shirts as my base point. How do other brands compare with Icebreaker? What about the new Icebreaker models, are they better than old ones?

To the podium got:

  1. Mons Royale, 4,48 / 5 points
  2. Icebreaker 4,38 / 5
  3. Inari 4,38 / 5

MerinoTestShirts

The test shirts. Upper row from left: 4 x Mons Royale, 4 x Icebreaker test shirts, 2 x Icebreaker 10-year-old shirts, 2 x Inari. Lower two rows: test shirts from various manufacturers in random order.

Mons Royale (I’ll skip the model names now, for they change so often) has a combination of 83% merino wool/13% nylon/4% elastane. 140 g/m². These shirts are very good-looking, the most elegant ones in the test! They feel good on skin, the hem is sufficiently long even for a long back like mine, and there are some great details, too.

Merino_Tuulettumassa_MonsRoyale_1284

Merino wool is great material. Hang it to air for the night, and the shirt is odorless, or nearly so, in the morning. Mons Royale shirts look cool.

Icebreaker had two different blends in the test: 52% merino wool/35% lyocell/13% nylon, and 87% merino wool/13%nylon. 150 g/m². There are many color and model options and the shirts look good. Very lightweight.

Merino_TeltastaHeraamassa_IcebreakerSphereSSLowCrewe_DSC00771.jpg

Merino wool is very good for hiking and camping. Icebreaker.

Inari is a new Finnish brand which surprised positively. They use 100% merino wool, 185 g/m². The fabric is not quite as thin as in those two others, but this did not make the shirt hot. A mystery to me is why there seems to be no short-sleeved t-shirts in Inari’s collection just now. Maybe there will be again when summer starts?

Merino_InariKauris_Lentualla_2898.jpg

Inari’s womens model from last summer.

After all testing none of the test shirts got as many points as my old 100% merino (150 g/m²) Icebreakers, which got 4,58 / 5 points. (Icebreaker has some 100% merino t-shirts even nowadays, but only at 200 g/m².)

All of the test shirts got good points and the main conclusion is this: There’s a wonderful variety of good quality merino wool t-shirts in shops! If you’re not familiar with thin merino wool, do get acquainted.

 

About gear and reviews

I have tested outdoor gear for Finnish magazine Erä for 18 years. I’m not a gear geek – on the contrary, I believe skills and attitude are more important than gear. You don’t have to visit an outdoor gear shop before starting hiking as a hobby.

I’m fond of recommending to start hiking on a sunny summer or autumn day. Walk for a couple of hours along a marked trail, enjoy lunch by campfire, listen to birds, see flowers and sights and so on. Enjoy the beauty and tranquility. You can take just the clothing you have in your normal wardrobe, nice and fitting shoes of this or that kind, and even jeans or sweatsuit trousers are okay. Cotton T-shirt will not kill you on that sunny and warmish day.

Well, naturally there is difference between everyday clothes and outdoor clothes, and special hiking equipment usually has some advantages. When you have advanced in your hiking hobby from summer day hiking to something more challenging, do update your clothes and gear.

“Cotton kills” is a well known phrase, and there’s much truth behind it. Cotton does feel cold when wet, and it dries annoyingly slowly. There can be a difference of two kilograms between two sleeping bags or tents, both suitable for similar weather conditions. The lighter is better quality and more pricey, but well worth the money, if you are heading for a week or two weeks long expedition and carry everything on your backpack. And so on.

So, what I’m trying to say, I’m not testing outdoor gear just because I want to test new stuff. Testing can be boring, if I have eight middle-cost sleeping bags that offer nothing new. And I don’t get excited about new outdoor inventions that try to solve a problem that is not really any problem. But when I get to test something which is useful to my way of hiking, then testing can be very interesting. Or if there’s been a lot of development lately; for example testing new headlamps was fascinating! How can they squeeze so much luminosity into so small and lightweight package nowadays!

I’ll get deeper into headlamps later, today I wanted to tell about merino wool, and more specifically merino t-shirts.

* * *

Next week, hmm. Maybe I’ll tell about what it looks in Northern Finland just then, at the end of May. So, probably a trip report. Or, maybe I’ll ponder further my thoughts about outdoor gear. What equipment of mine has been in heavy us over two decades?

– – –

Test policy: I get no money or any other benefits from mentioning brands in this post. I got paid for my journalistic work by magazine Erä when I conducted the test I mention above, but this piece I wrote just because I wanted to write it.

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