I hate being cold, I hate cold weather, and I hate getting bundled up. So before a recent press trip (for a future Theme Magazine article) up to Jukkasjarvi, in Sweden's portion of the Arctic Circle, I started poking around NYC camping stores looking for thermals. But my friend Outdoor Tony recommended I buy them in Sweden, assuring me that Swedes produce top-notch cold weather gear.
Research led me to Woolpower AB, a Swedish company that began producing tubular-knit thermals for the Swedish military in conjunction with scientists and cold-weather survival experts nearly 40 years ago. So upon landing in Stockholm I found a store that stocked them, then outfitted myself head-to-toe, like the warm-weather wussy that I am.
Then it was off to the Arctic, to investigate the Ice Hotel and chase reindeer. And after testing the uniquely-engineered Woolpower gear out in subzero conditions, I can firmly say they are awesome!
First off, the company uses wool as its basic ingredient because "Wool is nature's own functional material, and so far no one has succeeded in producing a synthetic fiber with [its] characteristics." Wool keeps its shape; it insulates against both heat and cold; it's hydroscopic (moisture-absorbing) and will keep you warm even if it gets wet; it's generally bacteria-resistant; it's easy to air out, does not need to be washed often, and it doesn't gather funky smells.
The downside to wool is that it doesn't wear well. To make it last, Woolpower adds the minority ingredient of polyamide (nylon), which is strong, elastic, moisture-resistant, quick-drying, and wears well.
The resultant combination of wool (Merino wool, which is finer than regular wool) and polyamide produces a textile they've named Ullfrotte Original, and Woolpower then weaves that together in a highly specific way: The outside is knit smooth, and the side that goes against your skin is knit into fine loops, which act like little pockets that trap heat--the garments are essentially 80% air. The arrangement ensures that moisture is transported from the inside towards the outside of the garment, preventing sweat from sticking to your skin and freezing in subzero conditions.
The material is woven into the shape of clothing on specially-designed circular knitting machines, producing tubes of fabric that are then connected to make sleeves and so on. The largely seamless construction means there's no no lengthwise seam to chafe or catch on other clothing, which would hasten wear and deterioration.
Woolpower only purchases wool from countries that can guarantee they do not practice "mulesing," a controversial technique of surgically mutilating sheep to prevent fly infestation. Since Australia cannot guarantee 100% mulesing-free wool, Woolpower has shifted its purchasing exclusively to Patagonia, South America, "where ethical handling of the sheep can be guaranteed."
Woolpower garments are almost absurdly thin compared to other thermals I've owned, yet kept me super-warm in below-freezing conditions. I could layer them easily without reducing my mobility, without feeling like my own clothes were choking me, and without that Michelin-man feeling that I have to turn sideways to get through a doorway. The absence of lengthwise seams made them comfortable against the skin, with no chafing.
Woolpower's stuff is also thin enough that you can super-layer--on days when I knew I was going to be outside in subzero conditions for several hours, I pulled my regular thermal pants on top of the Woolpower bottoms and under my jeans, and it all fit handily without making my legs feel like sausages (and I stayed nice and toasty).
When sitting in a teepee next to a roaring fire (long story), I did not start pooling up with sweat; the garments really do an excellent job of wicking moisture away. When I felt too warm after doing intense physical activity outdoors (we were catching reindeer, believe it or not) I opened the zip-neck on the turtleneck base layer and untucked the bottom of it, which did a good job of venting the excess heat without me having to strip layers.
On one day I made the mistake of wearing low-cut boots while trekking through deep powder snow, and some snow got into my shoe and melted; but after the initial sensation (and alarm) at having wet feet--which can lead to frostbite in subzero conditions--the socks did a good job of keeping my feet both warm and dry.
Because of the material Woolpower uses, items like the socks--traditionally a high-risk funk factor article of clothing--do not need to be washed after each use and can be simply aired out; any smell from your boot disappears shortly. Also, all of the garments can be machine-washed, even in hot water, and thrown in a dryer on high and nothing will shrink or distort.
One of the things I appreciate about the company is that they seem more interested in keeping you warm than in hard-selling their own products. ("We want to share our knowledge and our experiences about how the body works when it is cold, and the best ways to stay comfortably warm," they write.) To that end, they produce and distribute a free informational booklet on how to keep warm, whether you're using their stuff or someone else's.
In addition to running down the basics of layers--ideally four of them, all with different functions--the booklet provides tips and factoids. Some of the tips are obvious ("...In cold weather, when you are wearing lots of clothes, heavy sweating can prove disastrous when the moisture will actually make you colder") while others may come as a surprise ("A foot produces about 2 oz of water every day" and "If your feet are cold--put on a hat"). The booklet can be downloaded for free here.
Woolpower makes base layer T's, long-sleeve crew necks, turtlenecks, bottoms, and one-piece suits; mid-layer vests, sweaters, jackets, and bottoms; socks of various heights/thicknesses; mittens and fingerless gloves; balaclavas, caps and cap liners; and even a midriff belly warmer for pregnant women.
Garment densities range from 200, 400, and 600 grams. A Swedish salesperson told me that the 200 gram weight is generally responsible for 98% of sales and good enough for most people, whereas the 400 and 600 are generally used by outdoor workers in super-extreme conditions.
The products I tested were the 200g base-layer T and turtleneck, the 200g bottoms, and both the 200g and 400g socks.
I was relatively sure no Swedish company would make clothes in my size; I'm 5'4" with a 28" waist, and my Swedish tour guide was 6'7" and looks like he could pick up a Volvo and hurl it over the nearest mountain. But luckily for me, the XS fit me like a glove. (An international sizing chart is here.) Ironically, after telling my tour guide what I'd read about Woolpower--he'd not heard of the company--he accompanied me to the store and bought some of it for himself.
As I was on the Arctic trip before Christmas, I ended up buying a bunch of Woolpower garments as gifts for friends, since I figured the stuff would be hard to find outside of Sweden. I later found out that due to demand, about 70% of Woolpower's output is exported outside of Sweden. Still, the stuff can be hard to find, depending on where you are.
For a list of international distributors (Asia, Europe, Scandinavia, and Canada), click here.
Those in the U.S. can find stockists, some of them mail-order, here.
If you live in Core77's hometown of New York, there's actually a stockist not far from our offices, in Nolita, called Fjallraven NY.