The Benefits of Natural Materials: Beanies & Base Layers
No matter how much you enjoy the great outdoors, the truth is, the wrong gear can ruin a good time. Especially in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest where wet weather is a staple of fall, winter and spring.
With cooling temperatures and winter weather well on its way, proper attire is key to enjoying the outdoors year-round, and it turns out nothing is more important than what your outdoor clothing is made from.
Since the 1970's when Helly Hanson created the first polypropylene base layer, synthetic fibers have dominated the technical outdoor apparel scene. Originally hitting the market as cheap, durable alternatives to more expensive natural fibers. Today, polyester is still the most common material used for base layers.
Thankfully, there has been a resurgence of natural fibers, which are not only sustainable, but are superior in both performance and comfort to synthetics in athletic and outdoor uses. What makes these fibers so special and how can they be best applied when layering up for your next adventure?
Synthetic Materials Aren’t Good for You or the Planet
There are a range of increasingly obvious issues with the production and sale of goods made from synthetic materials, particularly as it pertains to matters of the environment and climate change.
Brands in the outdoor industry love to lead with messages of sustainability, but in reality are just as guilty of “fast fashion” and just as responsible for the destruction of the planet as many other mainstream retailers.
As synthetic fabrics are manufactured, washed and worn they release microplastics into the environment, including into our water sources, and ultimately into our food and bodies. A recent study of plastic retention within human organs has shown that people eat and breathe in at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year.
When they finally end up in the landfill, and they inevitably do, they take a long time to degenerate as they are non-biodegradable, and the chemicals used in their manufacturing can leach out into the environment.
5 Best Natural Materials for Beanies & Base Layers
Natural fibers overall are durable and long lasting in rough outdoor conditions, moisture wicking which keeps the skin dry and regulates temperature and, most importantly, feel comfortable against the skin.
Here is a closer look at five of our favorite natural fibers: merino wool, organic cotton, cashmere, bamboo and hemp. All of which truly embody the characteristics that make going natural for beanies and layers, make sense.
Merino wool has been used to make humans clothing for millennia, but it really got it’s big break in Spain, circa the late 18th century, where it was prized for its exceptionality. Merino wool’s modern debut came post WWII when it hit the runway for the first time, popularizing it for both utilitarian and fashion purposes.
Merino wool comes from one of the oldest pure breeds of sheep in the world; the merino sheep. A single merino ram can produce up to almost 25 pounds of wool, every year.
Overall, this fiber is highly effective in keeping sheep cool on blazing hot summer days, up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. For the frigid winter nights, merino sheep grow an extra layer of protection against temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wool, and merino wool in particular, is excellent at temperature control, because the crimp in the fiber creates pockets of air that are heated by body temperature in colder weather and draws in moisture to cool in warmer temperatures. It is incredibly soft, has antimicrobial properties and is arguably the most effective moisture wicking fiber on the market, today.
Because of its benefits, this fiber is excellent for a variety of layers and accessories that can be used year-round. Beanies, scarves, long underwear, and sweaters are just a few examples of how to incorporate merino wool into your outdoor wardrobe.
What Makes Merino Wool So Good at Moisture-Wicking?
These moisture wicking benefits are it’s true superpower. Wool pulls moisture vapor away from your body before it can even form sweat droplets on your skin. Clothing and accessories can also absorb more than 30% of their weight before they’ll even feel damp to the touch.
The science behind how this is possible has to do with the structure of the fiber itself, on a cellular level. A waxy coating makes wool water repellent, but still able to absorb water vapor.
When wool absorbs moisture, it retains additional heat, so if you go from a warm room into a cold, damp night wearing a wool sweater, the wool picks up water vapor from the air, keeping you warm.
The reverse occurs when you go back into the warm room―the moisture in your sweater passes out into the atmosphere, cooling you down. This is also true when exercising, wool releases moisture when you sweat, and traps it when you are cold, maximizing temperature control.
In the early years of American History, cotton exports were solely responsible for putting the United States on the world economic map. On the eve of the Civil War, raw cotton constituted 61 percent of the value of all U.S. products shipped abroad. Before the cotton boom in the 1780s, North America had been a marginal player in the global economy.
Today, traditional cotton has been labeled as one of the dirtiest crops in the world due to the sheer volume of chemicals and pesticides required for its cultivation. Enter, organic cotton. This is one place where going organic has one of the largest impacts as it uses 72 percent less energy and 91 percent less water than it’s conventional alternative.
People who suffer allergies often rely on organic clothing as it is hypoallergenic and made without pesticides. Although it does not make a good base layer on cold weather days, because it would soak up moisture instead of wicking it away, it is an awesome heat conductor and works like a charm in dry climates.
Another place cotton performs well? Beanies are the perfect midweight head protection on cool spring or summer evenings.
What Makes Organic Cotton so Good at Conducting Heat?
The structure of cotton can be imagined as a “fluffy” chain. As the chains twist around one another, they leave spaces that hold air. When woven into cloth, they twist further, holding even more air.
These pockets of air function to capture heat from the body and slow its radiation into a cooler environment. The opposite is also true; cotton insulates the skin against a hot environment while absorbing moisture from the skin. The evaporation of moisture provides a cooling layer next to the skin, perfect for arid, hot days.
In the late 18th century, cashmere shawls were being exported from Kashmir and India to the West, popular among women from the wealthy upper classes. These ladies draped the shawls around their shoulders, keeping themselves stylishly warm as they dressed in the Neoclassical style of short-sleeved, high-waisted dresses.
Today, Cashmere has transcended the high end fashion world and made its way outdoors. Unsurprisingly, women were drawn to shawls made of cashmere in the 18th century for the same reasons we are drawn to the fiber now: it is almost unspeakably warm and soft.
Cashmere wool itself is spun from the wool of cashmere goats. The outer layer of the goat's coat is formed by guard hair that is waterproof, and a down coat, with superior thermal insulation capabilities due to the air trapped within the coat. The down coat is considered its true prize and is where the luxury fibers can be found.
This wool is highly regarded for its extremely soft texture and insulating properties. Three times warmer and much lighter than regular sheep’s wool, Cashmere is often blended with other types of wool, like merino, to maximize the benefits of the materials and increase affordability. Smart, considering pure cashmere can go for as much as $114.00 a pound.
If you have a few hundred extra dollars lying around and want to splurge on the best long underwear of your life, then look no further, pure cashmere is the fiber for you. If you’re looking for a slightly more attainable way to incorporate cashmere, beanies are an excellent choice. While still coming at a premium, they’re a fantastic bang for your buck (your ears will thank you!).
What Makes Cashmere so Warm and Soft?
Loft, in regards to fiber, refers to how much air fits between the spaces of the fiber. The higher the loft, the warmer the fiber. These spaces between the fibers is determined by the crimp of the individual strands of wool.
Cashmere has a very high loft, therefore a lot of air can fit between the strands when woven together resulting in a wicked warm fabric; much warmer than sheep’s wool due to a few key differences in the cellular makeup of the fiber.
Scale height has to do with the keratin covering the outside of each strand of fiber; the higher the scale, the itchier the wool. In cashmere, the scale height is less than in wool, making it itch free and cozy. The finer the fiber, the softer the material, and cashmere is twice as soft as other premium wools, like merino, due to both its scale height and diameter.
The history of bamboo can be traced back over 7,000 years in China, where it was originally used for it’s great structural abilities to build treehouses. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first known patent for bamboo fabric was filed in the U.S., and ultimately not until the early 2000s that it ultimately took root as a valuable fiber for clothing and textiles.
Bamboo can also be grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers; it can detoxify wastewater, thanks to its high nitrogen consumption; and it generates as much as 35 times as much oxygen as hardwood trees. It does so much, it’s hard to keep it straight.
As a fiber, bamboo is hypoallergenic, like cotton, and extremely soft. It can give you exactly the level of warmth, sweat wicking and odor controlling comfort needed when playing outside. Overall, it’s another great year-round natural material for clothing and headwear; cozy and warm, yet breathable, this fiber performs fantastic whether cold or warm.
So layer it up or don’t, because bamboo's absolute best quality might be the fact that it‘s antimicrobial. Antimicrobial properties in athletic fabrics means they can fight odor while you’re on the go and help prevent excessive bacterial growth in between washes.
What Makes Bamboo Antimicrobial?
The real benefit of bamboo can be found in its antimicrobial properties. But, not all bamboo fabric possesses this particular quality.
Bamboo rayon is a fabric that has lost all plant qualities due to serious chemical processing. The real top performer is bamboo linen, which is also referred to as mechanically processed bamboo fabric, and has retained it’s natural bacteria-fighting super powers. This is important as it helps fight odors caused by bacteria after heavy use over time, making the clothing much longer lasting than a synthetic which has no bacteria fighting properties.
In 2012 a study was released showing that Australian-grown Moso bamboo has natural antibacterial agents located in the plant’s “lignin.” Bamboo lignin is responsible for protecting the plant from weather and external harm, it also acts as the storage shed for bamboo’s antibacterial agents.
And, though 375,000 acres of hemp were successfully harvested and used to create parachutes, cordage and other wartime staples, by the 1970s, the War on Drugs slammed the brakes on any study or development of this utilitarian material. That is, until the Farm Bill was passed and the crop could once again be legally grown, starting in 2013.
The hemp plant’s usefulness has only been eclipsed by desire for political power, as is made clear by the fact that it was so heavily turned to in times of war. The truth is this plant is fully planet positive. Surpassing even bamboo, it has actually taken the number one spot as the most sustainable crop on the planet!
This is in large part because the plant itself is regenerative to the soil. When used as a cover crop, it allows the soil to “rest” and restores nutrients consumed by cash crops.
In addition to benefits for the environment, hemp is also an incredible fiber for use in outdoor clothing and gear. It’s soft and wildly durable, making it ideal for heavy use as a base, mid or single layer. If you like to play hard, this fiber should feel right at home in your closet. And, similar to merino and bamboo, this natural material can be used for outdoor staples, all year long.
What makes Hemp so Strong?
Hemp is a well known fiber for textiles due to its sustainability and its versatility, but it’s strength is the real kicker. A tough, fibrous plant (think celery!) and it’s strength really can’t be overstated. It’s so strong that it can’t even be compared to other textiles and is more easily understood in comparison to steel.
When the tensile stress of hemp and steel are compared, hemp was found to have ⅓ more strength than steel, giving it the capacity to endure double the weight of steel before it cracks and breaks.
Natural Fibers are the Best Choice
These natural fibers have spent millennia evolving to protect plant and animal alike, battling the elements and refining over thousands of years to perfect their purpose, so its no surprise that the same benefits these materials provide in nature would be found in gear made from natural sources. So no matter what you’re doing, there is a natural fiber for every occasion, every sport and every season. From matters of sustainability to performance, natural fibers are unrivaled when it comes to outfitting yourself against the elements.
By choosing sustainable fibers, like merino wool or bamboo, you can feel confident that you’re respecting the outdoors and keeping yourself well equipped. You might be asking yourself why we ever deviated in the first place, and we think that is a fantastic question, absolutely worth asking. It’s why we’re here!