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Origin Story: Icebreaker Born From Hand-Sewn Shirt

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Two decades ago, a farmer gave a young hiker a handmade merino wool t-shirt at a remote New Zealand ranch. It was the unlikely impetus of a now-global brand, Icebreaker.

First Icebreaker t-shirt
The original: First Icebreaker t-shirt

It’s 1994, a cloudy day in New Zealand. At a trailhead, Jeremy Moon takes off his backpack and shirt, what he recalls was a “rank, synthetic top.”

“I realized I’d been brainwashed,” Moon told me. “I was wearing essentially a plastic shirt — melted plastic fibers, knitted together, with chemicals added in.”

He never put that shirt back on.

Moon grew up exploring the wilds of New Zealand. College was a quest to understand history and humans, and Moon earned an anthropology degree before, at age 24, discovering his life calling.

Discovering Merino

Merino wool is more than a material to Moon. A farmer first introduced him to the fine wool in the form of a hand-sewn t-shirt. It just felt right, felt natural, the first time it touched his skin.

He’d found the antithesis of “melted plastic with chemicals added.”

Moon elaborated: “The outdoor industry is, and always was, about connecting people to nature. But for decades polypropylene, polyester, nylon, and other petrochemical fibers were sold as the only solution. With those you’re actually wearing plastic. It’s extruded, treatments and chemicals are then introduced to induce a capillary response for wicking and to mitigate stink. This is the furthest thing from nature you can do.”

Moon launched Icebreaker in 1995 as an alternative to the “hegemony of synthetics,” as he called it. More than two decades on and Icebreaker is a global brand. Its mission has expanded, and merino has gone from obscure to the mainstream.

But Moon still fights for the natural over the synthetic, in the realm of t-shirts and beyond. We caught up with Moon for a Q&A on the current state of Icebreaker, wool, and the world of apparel made for life and the outdoors.

jeremy moon icebreaker
Jeremy Moon (2017 photo)

Interview: Jeremy Moon, Founder of Icebreaker

Your origin story about founding Icebreaker is unique. A merino farmer gave you a t-shirt?

Right, in 1994, a merino farmer handed me a shirt and asked me to put it on. The shirt was a simple prototype of a new fabric, it looked a bit rough but felt amazing to wear. I wore it running and mountain biking, to work, and even slept in it at night, I just loved it, it was silky soft, regulated my temperature, and didn’t hold odor. At the time the outdoor and active apparel industry was entirely run by petroleum, nothing natural was available, yet this t-shirt was both high performance and natural. I fell in love with merino, brought the idea from the farmer, and founded Icebreaker with the purpose of offering natural products to outdoor people.

You use harsh terms when talking about synthetic shirts, like “melted plastic with chemicals added.” Where did this come from?

It was a challenge when I started Icebreaker to get outdoor stores to consider merino wool apparel. They would say “don’t talk to me about wool… wool is dead.” They were right, traditional old fashioned wool is dead, but merino is fine and strong and soft. So I had to adapt my vocabulary around it. After being rejected at the first outdoor shop, at the next store I said “here’s a new kind of product, it’s merino.” I avoided the word wool. There’d been 10 years of brainwashing by the big chemical companies. I would ask retailers about it, saying “you’re into nature, right?” Then why did they wear plastic against their skin? I was trying to shift perception about synthetics from being this hyper-tech apparel to what they really are — plastic.

We wish everyone could wear merino wool. But it is very expensive. What do you say to the people who cannot afford merino?

The reality is merino pricing will not come down. We need to pay what the growers require. You could pay less but you would get trade-off in animal welfare. Our merino t-shirts are around $80, which is expensive but they last longer, and do more, and feel better, so I think it’s great value. A side note: There are inexpensive shirts claiming to be merino out there; I have seen them for $19 at Costco. But they are often 80% polyester.

merino in New Zealand
It’s all about sheep, here a herd of merino in New Zealand

You talk about merino and its base of keratin, the same protein that forms your skin and hair. Why does a keratin-based fiber feel better than synthetic?

Merino is similar to the hair on your body. It’s based on the same molecular makeup. That is why the fabric feels natural. Merino is inert to your body. It’s bio-compatible. It’s really different than wearing a synthetic shirt. But even contrast it with another biological fabric, like cotton. Cotton is cellulose-based. It’s not as natural to mammals against the skin. Merino can remind us that we’re all mammals. To get in touch more with the world. Merino is an adaptation regular sheep have for living in the mountains. Merino and other wool absorbs and releases moisture very rapidly. It’s a core function of the fiber to absorb and release moisture. All we’re doing is taking a fiber that’s adapted in nature to keep an animal alive in mountains.

Switching gears, you did a TEDx talk in Antarctica? Tell us about it.

It was held at New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is a research station that’s been there on Antarctica for 60 years. All the talks had an environmental angle. My talk was about sustainable business and why people are interested in products and the objects we choose to bring into our lives. [See Moon’s full talk here.] The audience was down there at the station and the talks were also simulcast across 60 cities around the world. Something like 90% of the world’s ice is in Antarctica, and it’s responsible for regulating the world’s ocean temps. It’s the freezer at the bottom of the world. I was there a week. One night I slept in a snow cave, tucked myself into Antarctica itself and just listened to the silence. I’d been dreaming about that moment.

Icebreaker has an insulation product, MerinoLOFT, that can replace goose down. Tell the readers about that.

We are finding new ways to use merino. By mixing it up with our process you can give it loft. This provides an alternative to synthetic insulation and goose down. It’s lightweight, and it also absorbs and releases moisture. So it’s one of the only natural alternatives to down.

You have noted how MerinoLOFT can “avoid the whole animal cruelty aspect of down.” Elaborate on that, please.

Well, with down you get birds and kill them then pluck them. Merino sheep are sheared annually, over the course of their lives. It’s annually renewable. This is a big deal at Icebreaker. Biological and annually renewable.

Talk about other areas you see as the future of Icebreaker or the apparel industry as a whole.

We just focus on natural performance products and aim to be the best in the world at it. We will continue to promote alternatives to synthetics and source the finest merino wool from New Zealand through long term contracts with our farmers. Another focus is looking for natural fibers to blend with merino. For example, for summer use we blend Tencel, a fiber produced from eucalyptus trees, with merino. It creates a product that keeps you cool and dry and doesn’t hold odor. Our process runs two years into the future so we have a lot of exciting innovations up our sleeves.

A strand of raw merino wool
A strand of raw merino wool

What will people be wearing in 100 years from now? What will fall by the wayside?

I don’t have a clue. But the long-term trends revolve on treating the body with more respect, from food and exercise to what you wear on your body. So I see more natural fibers coming and wearing “nature against your skin.”

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