ICEBREAKER MERINO: Reinventing Wool As a Performance Fiber

Launched in 1994, Icebreaker was the first company in the world to develop a merino wool layering system for the outdoors. It was also the first outdoor apparel company in the world to source merino directly from growers, a system it began in 1997. Icebreaker merino clothing for the outdoors, technical sports and lifestyle includes underwear, mid layer garments, outerwear, socks and accessories for men, women and children. Icebreaker is based in Wellington, New Zealand, and is sold in more than 3000 stores in 43 countries. You have to be tough to survive in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. With scorching summers and freezing winters, the glacier-carved mountain range is a harsh, inaccessible environment and possibly the last place you’d expect to find a sheep. But the sheep that survive on the Southern Alps aren’t run-of-the mill lowland sheep. They’re merino sheep: hardy alpine animals with a coat that insulated in summer, breathes in summer, and is exceptionally soft and lightweight.

In 1994, Icebreaker’s founder, Jeremy Moon was given a prototype t-shirt made from merino wool. It was soft, sensual and lustrous—nothing like the itchy, scratchy wool he’d grown up with. It was also machine washable, easy care and naturally resistant to odor. The discovery inspired Jeremy to create an entirely new category around this new product: merino outdoor apparel. Icebreaker merino garments and accessories for the outdoors, technical sports and lifestyle are now sold in more than 3000 stores in 43 countries.

From Microns to Marathons

My introduction to the brand came in 1994, when Jeremy sponsored my adventure racing team. To be honest, I was skeptical the stuff he gave us looked far too nice to race in. After a couple of days of non-stop running, cycling and hiking, the river started rising. People were being rescued by helicopter. My team was the first out, and when we crossed the river there were TV crews waiting to interview us. By the time I got to the transition point, I was so cold in my polypropylene layers that I was on the verge of hypothermia. I had my doubts about Icebreaker merino, but they were my only dry clothes so I decided to give them a try. What immediately struck me was the warmth. Icebreaker merino is warm when wet, so I stayed warm even though the rain was still falling. Adventure races are all about survival you have to stay warm, keep your nutrition up, and protect your feet from blisters. After that, it’s a mental game. I told everyone in my team how warm I was, so by the time the race ended two days later all of us were wearing our Icebreaker layers. We’d been converted.

Creating a New Icebreaker

Before we can even start designing a new garment, we think about the person who is going to use it. We think about think about whether the garment will be a base layer, a mid layer or an outer layer, and what activity it’s going to be used for. This exploration helps us formulate the necessary properties for the yarn, the fabric and, finally, the garment itself. We write a brief with specifications for the type of yarn we’ll need, and that influences our sourcing. Merino fibers are ultra fine much finer than the fibers of traditional wool which is why our merino is so soft and non-itch. It’s very lightweight and feels more like silk against the skin than wool. Merino fibers usually range from 13–25 microns, which is about one-third the thickness of a human hair. The smaller the micron, the finer the wool (in comparison, wool fibers from traditional lowland sheep are usually 35–45 microns). Once we’ve decided on the type of yarn, we brief on what sort of fabric we need to construct. For example, it could be a lightweight garment made of eyelet fabric for running, or one of our Realfleece brushed fleece mid layers for wearing outdoors in cold weather. Finally, we do a briefing on the garment itself. This is when we talk about potential enhancements to the garment, such as increased freedom of motion or laminations to make a garment windproof and rainproof. We’ll think about what season it’s likely to be worn in. Icebreaker is a layering system, so we’ll ask ourselves how every new garment will work when it’s worn with other Icebreaker layers.

Sourced from Nature

We’ve adapted merino into a clothing system, but it was designed by nature. The reason it works as a performance fabric is because nature designed the coat of the merino sheep to work in all climates and conditions warm in winter, and breathable in summer. It’s also easy care, machine washable and naturally odor-resistant. So we look to nature as the basis for our innovations. Whenever we want to add other elements to the fabric mix, we ask where they come from and how they can be processed to ensure that they are safe and ecologically sound. We are committed to sustainability, ethical manufacturing and animal welfare.

The Icebreaker restricted substance list prevents any harmful chemicals being used by our manufacturing partners, and our fabrics are certified to the highest attainable standard by Oeko-Tex&res;, an independent international textiles testing and certification system. Rather than buying wool at auction, Icebreaker pioneered the system of sourcing merino wool directly from growers in 1997. All of the growers that we work with agree to meet our strict conditions on treatment of animals, land stewardship and fiber quality. Being able to take responsibility for every step of the supply chain allowed us to launch “Baacode,” our industry-leaded traceability program. Garments have individual “Baacodes” which our customers can use online to trace the wool in their garment right back through the supply chain to the sheep stations where it was grown.

Reaching the World

Our headquarters have always been in Wellington, New Zealand, but Icebreaker now has a total of 350 employees working around the globe. I work in our US base in Portland, Oregon, which has 60 employees including our 25-strong product design team. Our staff around the world are invariably our consumers: they wear Icebreaker to climb mountains, hike, ski, cycle, run, practice yoga or travel in. Many of us travel frequently, constantly looking for trends and finding out how people are living, working and staying active. Our jobs are very much about research. How can we use wool in increasingly different and more useful ways? In a word, experimentation. For example, for our Fall/Winter 2012 range we’re launching a new collection of Realfleece Nano jackets that use bluesign&res;-accredited nanotechnology to resist water, mud and oil. We also have a new range of merino-insulated soft shell jackets their triple-layer construction is both windproof and water resistant. But our core focus will always be merino. It’s an incredible fiber, and its potential is limitless.

Born to Perform

We started off with base layers, and then created a complete, top-to-toe, year-round layering system. A decade ago, our primary obstacle was to overcome the belief that wool is itchy and bulky that’s true of traditional wool from lowland sheep, but not of Icebreaker merino. Our marketing strategy was simply to have the product speak for itself: once people try it on, they’re sold. Our competition has grown since those early days, but we see that as a good thing for all of us. It promotes innovation. There are now more than 20 distinct merino fabrics in the Icebreaker system, encompassing base layer, mid layer, and outerwear. We’re continuing to evolve our product to go further with fashion and functionality. We’ve accomplished so much, but we’ve only just scratched the surface we have an exciting future ahead of us.


Note: Rob Achten is Vice President of Product and Creative Director at Icebreaker. He leads Icebreaker’s product design team and takes an active role in ensuring Icebreaker’s brand identity, strategy and design direction are consistently carried through to all design disciplines. Before joining Icebreaker in 2003, Achten co-founded Origin Design, an award-winning agency based in Wellington, New Zealand. ( By Rob Achten )