Merino Wool. One fabric to rule them all.
About 10 years ago, tired of the inevitable stink of synthetic clothes, we started wearing wool on our rides. Initially we were skeptical that we would be too hot, or the clothes would be too itchy. But soon we discovered why wool had historically been the material of choice for most outdoors clothing long before the rise of synthetics. It’s breathable. The finer weaves stay cool in warm weather. It dries quickly and stays warm when wet. It’s exceptionally durable. And most importantly it doesn’t stink when you sweat in it (but, please wash it every now and then, for all our sakes). We’ve been fans of riding in wool ever since. Then about 5 years ago, a flurry of purpose-built wool sports clothing began hitting the US market. We have been slowly and steadily adding more and more wool to our wardrobe ever since.
Back in mid-November we got an email from the folks at IO Merino, asking us to try out some gear in the normal day-to-day of our bike based lifestyle. After some confusing run-arounds with Macedonian Customs, we finally got a few pieces to try out in late December. After about 6 weeks wearing it day in and day out, we have a pretty good idea about the quality, construction, wearability and design.
Quality and Construction
The first thing we noticed is the softness of the materials on both jackets. Remember how wool used to be scratchy and uncomfortable? Like wearing a bag of fire ants or something. No more. Most merino garments we’ve had in the past few years are far softer than anything I remember from childhood. From what we can tell, the fineness of the thread is a major factor here. Both the Elemental and Arizona are spun from 18.5 micron thread, which is standard across the merino-wool-sphere. But something about the IO garments makes them feel softer and more supple than similar garments we’ve tried from both IceBreaker and Ibex. And although the folks at IO Merino tout the softness of their wool over the competition, they’re not giving away any clues as to why its so soft.
Material construction is top-notch on both jackets. Some reviews of IO garments we’ve read complain about thickness. Both jackets do seem thinner than expected, but not so much as to detract from the overall functionality. And depending on where and when you’re wearing them, thickness is relative. In fact, in our opinion, thinner is softer, and therefore better overall. (That is as long as you wear enough layers to stay warm when you need it.) The IO Merino base layers and mid-layers we have tried are by far the softest of any wool we’ve worn to date. Assembly and color fastness are top-notch. So far, after about a half-dozen washes everything has held together fine. No color fading or pilling of the materials. The stitching is well done. No loose threads or weak spots noticed to date.
IO Merino Elemental Jacket
The IO Merino Elemental Jacket is a full zip, mid-layer jersey or jacket for men. Made of a “french-waffle” weave that IO calls “Colossus” The 18.5 micron weight material (260gsm*) feels like a meshy, jersey. The waffle texture is nice. Much different from any other wool I’ve tried. It’s stretchy, super soft to the touch and, it breathes well when pedaling along at a sweaty pace. Like most of the IO stuff we tried it is a little on the thin side. The only time I’ve found this to be a problem was on long descents in the shade, after a long sweaty climb. And honestly, there’s not much except a windproof shell that will keep you warm in that scenario.
The fit runs a little big. Although billed as a “slim cut”, it is styled straight in the body with very little tapering. Don’t get me wrong, I find it refreshing that it’s not cut for a twiggy pro cyclist’s body. My big Clydesdale torso fits just fine, but that may be a concern for thinner folks. The waist is a flat seam that lays nicely and doesn’t ride up, even after hours in the saddle.
The construction is very nice. Flat-lock seams through out, so that there’s no rough hems rubbing where you don’t want. High quality zippers with rubberized pulls make quick zipping up or down a breeze. The reach-around side pocket is great. It’s easy to access compared to a full back pocket, which can sometime be a pain to unzip while pedaling. The places that wear faster, like elbows, may be a concern in the long run, due to the fabric’s thickness, but we’ll have to wait and see.
So far, my only complaints are stylistic. Your mileage may vary. The large crest-style logo is a little less to my liking than the logos on other garments we tested. But again, this is a personal preference and in no way affects the jacket. I also prefer a bound seam at the cuff. The Elemental has a normal “ribbed cuff” and I think it makes the sleeve puffier than it needs to be. This is easily remedied by folding the cuff over on itself. Again, purely personal, and in no way impacts the wearability of the garment.
IO Merino Arizona Hoody
The IO Merino Arizona Hoody is a full zip mid-layer hoody for women. Made of a full-fleece “french terry” fabric that IO Merino calls “Vosges“. The 18.5 micron fabric (240gsm*) is more like a traditional hoody fabric compared to the waffley stretchiness of the Elemental. Tough on the outside and fleecy on the inside. Just like most merino wool, it’s soft to the touch and warm, even when sweaty. Keeping with the tradition of thinner is softer, the Arizona isn’t as hefty as similar tops, like the Ibex Shak. So far this hasn’t been an issue in daily wear or on the bike. Then again, thinner breathes better and layering can solve most temperature issues.
The fit is slim with tailored seams on the torso and raglan sleeves. Allowing freedom of movement both on and off the bike. The one thing about the Arizona that has stood out is the ability to stay in place and not ride up when hunched over the bars. Owing this to the form-fitting design and the slightly longer length, so far the Arizona is a winner.
Construction is similar to the Elemental. Flat-lock seams to prevent rubbing where you don’t want it. And high quality zippers with rubber pulls for quick up and downs. Front pockets are nice around town and easily accessible on the bike. The terry fabric feels durable even if a little thin. The high wear areas have yet to show any flinching, but we’ll have to get some more time to properly evaluate this.
Stylistically, the Arizona is tops. Color contrasting zippers, pocket and hood lining make an outstanding appearance. The sleeves are cut a bit longer than you’d expect, covering outstretched arms when in the drops and draping nicely over the back of gloves.
*grams per square meter
Full Disclosure: Both the Elemental Jacket and Arizona Hoody were provided by IO Merino for our testing. All opinions are our own.