The first time I went to Antarctica in 2001, I bought an Icebreaker merino wool sweater in New Zealand. It was on sale, very soft, seemed pretty warm in the store, and looked good. That was the beginning of my conversion from synthetic fibers to natural ones. In addition to being warm and soft, I soon noticed that it also didn’t smell as bad as quickly.
I was issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear by the US Antarctic Program. All their long underwear was synthetic and after one good bit of work and sweat in it, it stank. The wool did not smell…well, it did not smell as bad. I have since switched to only wool and silk long underwear. The other thing I noticed about that sweater I bought was that it does not wear out. I wore it everyday for 33 months in Antarctica as well as everyday for 10 months in Alaska while doing physical labor in both. I also wore it for months of camping while not on the job. After eight years, the only wear and tear noticeable is at the cuffs on the sleeves.
I find that silk is quite warm, lightweight, and fairly durable. It very thin too so you can wear it under almost anything without adding much bulk. Compared to synthetics, I also find that it feels better on the skin and less prone to huge static build up so it clings less. Static may only be a problem in places like Antarctica or Beijing where there is no humidity.
When I started riding more, I decided to buy some cycling shirts. At first I bought some synthetic ones because they were cheap on Sierra Trading Post. When I’d go out in them, one ride, and they would stink pretty badly. However, sometimes I’d go out riding with my silk turtleneck and wool sweater. When I’d get back, pretty much no smell. I have since added a couple of wool cycling shirts by Smartwool and a merino wool cycling vest by Ibex — all bought cheaply on Sierra Trading Post. I think they look good, and I can go a few rides before the stink is so bad that I have to wash them.
The Ibex vest is nice to have in China too. It is thin enough to be worn underneath my dress shirts. That is useful during late autumn since the government doesn’t allow central heating to start until mid-to-late November. Many buildings are near freezing inside so the extra bit of warmth is nice. It is the only time of year I don’t mind wearing a suit.
So on my ride cross country I’ll be trying to outfit the layers closest to me all in natural fibers — mostly wool and silk.
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