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Warm-Weather Wool: Icebreaker Merino Shirts

The author in Arizona
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[leadin]Icebreaker rolled out a line of merino apparel made to be worn in summer heat. We put it to a test in the Southwest this summer.[/leadin]

The author in Arizona
The author in Arizona

Merino wool has long been a favorite of the GearJunkie crew. It warms when it’s cold, cools when it’s hot, and naturally fights off odor-causing bacteria.

Though mainly a cool-weather choice, there’s growing demand for merino wool year-round. Leading wool brands have developed products for an increasingly wide variety of conditions.

This summer, my girlfriend and I put Icebreaker’s Cool-Lite line to the test on a three-week trip through the American West. The line is specially designed for hot weather, combining super lightweight merino with a plant-based material called TENCEL, which is a eucalyptus-based wood fiber that wicks moisture and fends off bacteria.

According to Icebreaker, Cool-Lite, which includes t-shirts, tanks, shorts, and hoodies, wicks three times faster than pure merino, is “40% cooler,” and it has a sun-shielding rating of UPF30+.

Wool In The Desert

I’ve long considered myself a disciple of merino, but I’ve always preferred it in cold conditions. In the summer, I typically default to fast-drying synthetics, so backpacking and hiking through Utah, Arizona, and Southern California in July pushed me out of my typical merino comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed.

Icebreaker women’s Cool-Lite Sphere Tank Stripe and men's Sphere short sleeve
Icebreaker women’s Cool-Lite Sphere Tank Stripe and men’s Sphere short sleeve

The added comfort from the TENECEL justifies the steeper price of the line, in our experience. Merino is pricey to begin with, and this is the first blended line I’ve encountered that outperforms pure wool.

Both pieces feel great to wear, heat be damned. I’ve worn plenty of merino that keeps me cool and doesn’t stink for impossibly long durations of use, but there’s always been something about wool above 80 degrees that for me was reminiscent of eating kale — I knew it was good for me, but I couldn’t totally shake the taste, or in this case, the itchy, wet dog sensation.

Both Cool-Lite pieces were go-to’s all summer long, and the stay-cool, no-stink features make them a significant step-up from your old gym shirt in the offseason.

Icebreaker Cool-Lite Sphere Short Sleeve and Cool-Lite Sphere Tank Stripe
Icebreaker Cool-Lite Sphere Short Sleeve and Cool-Lite Sphere Tank Stripe

Blended Merino Shirts

Icebreaker uses different material combinations throughout the line. For example, the Cool-Lite Sphere short sleeve I wore is 65% merino, 20% TENCEL and 15% nylon. The women’s Cool-Lite Sphere Tank Stripe is 50% merino and 50% TENECEL. Lycra works its way into the mix in a few of the line’s other offerings as well.

All the pieces we tested were thin and breathable. Merino has a tendency to take in moisture; in its raw state, the fabric doesn’t wick. The blended products manage sweat better, and add stretch and durability as well.

One GearJunkie editor has worn a competing brand’s merino/nylon shirt for more than five years, and it’s become one of his go-to outdoor tops. See the full article, “Never-Die T-Shirt Tested For 5 Years.”

Odor-Resistant Wool Blend

I’ve worn blended merino before, and the garments tend to stink faster because of a lower, bacteria-fighting wool ratio. Thankfully, TENECEL is also anti-microbial, so I didn’t experience compromised performance, even with the 15% nylon also thrown in the mix.

If anything, I appreciated the nylon’s durability boost. The brand proclaims that Cool-Lite is blended up for performance, not down for cost. In our experience, this was spot on. It isn’t cheap, but it also performs every bit as well as you’d hope.

Costly Clothing

Like most merino apparel, the summer line is high-priced, with shirts ranging from about $60 to $100. The shorts in the line are about $90. Though this is double what you will pay for commodity clothing, we have no trouble recommending high-quality merino.

After years of use, the material has proven to be a good value. It’s comfortable day after day for many years. If you can budget it, Icebreaker is a solid investment.

–GearJunkie covered wool-blend apparel in “Never-Die T-Shirt” review last year.


-Patrick Murphy

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