Saturday, February 2, 2008

Smartwool roundup

This winter, I finally took the plunge and tried out some wool winter gear. Ok, I didn't really try it out myself. I actually bought stuff for Gen to use her as the guineau pig before getting something myself. After reading about the benefits of wool (environmentally sustainable material, moisture wicking, warmth even when wet, temperature regulation, natural odor control, etc.) and hearing good things about Smartwool, I finally gave into my consumer curiosity and bought something. Smartwool claims to use the finest and softest New Zealand merino wool for maximal comfort. They are also committed to sourcing their wool from growers who do not mulesing their sheep; since I'm an advocate of being compassionate towards other living beings, that gives Smartwool some bonus points in my book.

But sustainability and moral issues notwithstanding, how well do their products actually perform? Well, let's take a look. First up, the socks:



1. 3/4 Crew Light Hikers (Women's)



2. Crew Medium Hikers (Women's)



3. Women's Light Ski Socks (Women's), left stock photo, right my photo



4. Annabelle Pointelle (Women's, light cushion), left stock photo, right my photo

Since reviewing each individual pair of socks would be pretty repetitive, I'll make some general comments. First off, the socks feel quite soft and well-made. That's about as much as I can say from first-hand experience, since I did buy them for Gen. Plus, I'm not sure Gen would be all that happy with me stretching out her socks with my big manly feet. Any comments about the socks from this point on are based purely on her reaction to the socks.

Since our socks are largely generic cotton socks, the Smartwool socks are a huge step in terms of quality and warmth. After the first day of use, Gen was in love with the socks. Her feet were now comfortably cozy, which is fortunate for me; I'm not particularly fond of feeling the shock of ice cold toes when she's trying to warm up her feet on me. I did intentionally choose women's socks for the slimmer profile, which was a good choice in my opinion. The socks look like they are a snugger and more comfortable fit. The generic cotton socks look like they're a little baggy in places and not as well fit.

I tried to pick socks with extra toe and heel cushioning and with extra arch support. I got no opinion one way or another whether those features added any comfort. This is where the engineer and non-engineer perspectives diverged in the sock evaluation. Here I am worried about the specifications of the socks (percent wool, nylon, elastic, etc) and whether addition of structural cushioning elements would affect sock performance. All I get for my questioning is "I love them, they're really comfortable." All that research into the extra frills for a sweeping generalization of comfort. Sigh.

The claims about wool's moisture wicking and odor control seem to have some element of truth. The wool socks wick moisture away from the feet and help retain warmth in the presence of moisture. I'm sure there's practical limits to the warmth performance under really wet conditions, but I can't convince Gen to try dousing her feet with cold water and assessing the warmth retention of her feet. In the event of foot overheating and sweating, Gen found the Smartwool socks would still keep her feet relatively dry and not smell as much as regular cotton socks would. Nifty. [note: I've been asked to note that Gen's feet usually do not have any odor]

That covers the general impression of the socks. There were a couple of specific notes. First off, the medium cushioned hiker socks were actually a little too warm for indoor use. Granted, we have free heat, so this may not be a concern for people without the luxury of a comfortably temperature regulated apartment. Gen wasn't immediately in love with the ski socks since the elastic was initially a little tight. After a day break-in, the comfort was no longer an issue. Now, she won't leave the house on a cold day without them since they keep her entire lower leg warm.

Overall, the Smartwool socks get two big thumbs up. Gen thinks they're fabulously comfortable and warm, and I'm happy that her feet are comfortable and toasty. The only possible downsides to the socks are that they are on the pricey side, and the designs and colors might not be to everyone's tastes. The higher prices are worth it though, especially if you can find some Smartwool on sale.

Next up is the gift I finally bought for myself:


5. Active Training Cap (unisex)

Since my winter hats kept being "borrowed," I finally decided to buy myself a Smartwool cap. The cap is pretty comfortable. It's certainly more comfortable than the acrylic fiber caps I had before that were constantly disappearing on me. The cap is actually meant for exercising, so it's not quite as warm as other winter caps and is supposed to allow the wicking and evaporation of sweat. Personally, I find that the cap is just the right warmth most of the time. My head would often overheat and start sweating under my Thinsulate cap. I rarely have that happen with the Smartwool training cap.

I had initially thought that the "cap" would only cover the very top of my head. The size of the cap isn't that clearly depicted in the stock photo. Assuming you don't have a ton of hair, the cap should pull down over your ears. My ears and head stay cozy (but not too warm) under the cap. Considering that the cap is also light weight and easy to stow in my coat pocket, it's not surprising that I opt to use this cap in lieu of my other winter caps the vast majority of the time. I fiercely guard this cap from being borrowed so that it doesn't magically attach itself to another household member's head. The only downside I could find to the cap is that it has an extraneous tassel. I could see how that would annoy people, but it doesn't bother me. I just use it as a convenient handle for pulling off my cap.

This Smartwool cap gets my stamp of approval. I don't think Smartwool actually makes this particular style of cap anymore, but if this cap is any indication, I imagine that the other caps in their line must be equally comfortable and warm.

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