The New Breed of High-Performance Wool Clothing

FOR CENTURIES, SAVVY outdoor adventurers have layered up in wool for its warmth-trapping, water-repelling, sweat-wicking and stink-fighting properties. But this age-old textile continues to evolve, thanks to a handful of sheep ranchers and entrepreneurs across the U.S. who, after decades of exporting their wool, are keeping the highest-quality fibers here to develop new products for the American market. A revitalization of the entire domestic wool supply chain—from textile mills to wash operations to skilled cut-and-sew factory workers—has enabled companies to experiment and push the materials to new levels.

Some ranchers, for example, have teamed up with entrepreneurs to create thin, soft-as-silk 100% wool shirts. Other companies have developed high-performance outerwear that is as water-repellent and durable as synthetic alternatives—perfect for battling blizzards, or at least the ski slopes.

American sheep, it turns out, have a leg up on their cousins in Australia, from which most merino wool is imported. Sheep raised in high-elevation states—like Montana, Wyoming and Colorado—produce wool that’s more tightly “crimped,” meaning its fibers have more bends in them. (In the summer, free-range sheep are brought to higher elevations to graze—up to 12,000 feet—which encourages them to grow especially fine, crimpy wool to keep themselves warm and dry.)

The more crimped the wool is, the better it will be at trapping air pockets, which results in more warmth and breathability—a feature that’s especially desirable for winter sportswear.

Here are a handful of the most innovative American brands that are taking wool to new heights.

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