My love of tailoring and benchmade shoes is in part a passion for their raw materials: wool, with its versatility and ‘intelligence’ in the way it reacts to temperature; and leather, which moulds and ages so beautifully.
As with the renaissance in suiting over the past few years, makers of cycling kit have been rediscovering traditional materials. The increasing popularity of cycling has created a market for more expensive and better-made clothing, including that made of wool.
“Everyone today is looking at better materials, and realising the virtues of leather and of wool,” says Simon Mottram, managing director of Rapha. Rapha, founded in 2004, was one of a number of companies that re-introduced merino wool to the market.
“Leather is naturally water resistant and becomes personal with age, merino wool has these wonderful wicking properties, and both breathe naturally. Most modern synthetics are trying to emulate what nature already does very well – though obviously more cheaply.”
I’ve been a cyclist, and commuted by bike, for the past 10 years. But the crossover between cycling and both wool and leather didn’t occur to me until recently. I’ve been exploring it over the past few months and this will be the first of an occasional series on the subject, beginning with Rapha and merino wool.
All cycling jerseys used to be made out of wool. I have a rather nice knitted vintage one from Belgium. But wool was gradually replaced with synthetic materials: they were more robust, more comfortable and cheaper to manufacture. Then, in the past five years, merino wool started to win some of that market back – as a high-end market emerged. Compared to the old wools, merino is far lighter and softer to wear. It is also usually made today using flatlock stitching, a mercerised finish and seams positioned behind the shoulders, all of which make it more comfortable.
Wool has several advantages over synthetic materials. It wicks moisture away from the body quicker and (perhaps more importantly) can hold more of that moisture – about three times its own weight. This gives the water time to evaporate, where on a synthetic shirt it would be pushed back on to the body. Wool also doesn’t get smelly – even synthetics with ‘anti-bacterial’ treatment will need more frequent washing.
So what are the disadvantages? It’s not as durable, light or stretchy. Cycling jerseys go through a lot of punishment, holding heavy items in several pockets, which are frequently accessed. Pockets in a garment made entirely of wool can sag. Wool also can’t be double-stitched easily, making it more fragile. And it’s not machine washable.
Plus wool is on average 10 times more expensive than a synthetic. “You can make a synthetic-mix material for 30p or 40p a metre, call it Tech-Dry or Dry-Fit and convince the customer they are buying something technical without much advance in performance,” says Mottram.
The best option is normally a wool mix. Many of Rapha’s clothes use a branded product called Sportwool. It is 52% merino and 48% polyester, making it more robust and able to be double stitched. The producers also say that this combination, with the polyester on the facing of the wool, wicks moisture away quickest – the polyester helps draw it up, but the merino can hold it.
Other considerations pull the proportions of wool or synthetic cloth in different directions. A longer, hotter ride requires a lighter cloth – so the lightweight jersey is 25% merino, 75% polyester. For city riding, how a cloth looks and feels at the other end is important, so the long-sleeved polo shirt is 100% merino.
“Perceptions are also important,” says Mottram. “Racing cyclists want a cloth that feels fast – stretchy, lightweight and aerodynamic. And there’s still a prejudice against wool. So no matter how well it performed, a wool product would be disadvantaged.”
Rapha is experimenting with other natural materials to try and achieve this lightweight feel. A small amount of cashmere makes a jersey feel softer and lighter, for example. Silk makes it feel even smoother. But silk is useless at wicking away moisture – the fibres are too tight. “Time triallists used to wear silk jerseys in the old days,” says Mottram. “They were incredibly light and wind-resistant. But by the end of the trial the rider was soaking.”
My favourite Rapha piece is another experiment – the tweed softshell, pictured at the top of this piece and below. This uses a conventional wool cloth, woven in Germany, as the outer layer but then is bonded to a wind-proof middle layer and a soft, synthetic inner layer by Schoeller in Switzerland. This is the same construction as any softshell (and many other waterproofs, such as the Burberry trench coat) but the wool replaces the normally synthetic outer layer. It’s too heavy and inflexible for long rides, but perfect for the city. Unfortunately it also costs £50 a metre – which as Mottram says “is suiting prices, dangerous territory for sportswear”.
Also worth a mention is the treated wool used in Rapha's collaboration with Timothy Everest, for a tailored jacket that performs well on the bike. Readers will be familiar with the design from this previous post.
So why don’t professional cyclists wear merino, or any of these intelligent mixes? Apparently, for years the riders were pawns in a very commercial game, taking whatever bikes and equipment were given to them. “They had no power, and they got through thousands of pieces of kit a year – so their backers weren’t going to pay £15 more for a jersey,” says Mottram.
“That’s changed gradually in recent years, most notably with Lance Armstrong’s work with Trek and Nike. He has the curiosity to experiment and the power to make it happen. No one’s wearing merino yet – it hasn’t come that far – but I think they will at some point.”
Merino cycling gear is expensive. A basic short-sleeve base layer from Rapha (otherwise known as a T-shirt) costs £50. But then any natural product in a field of synthetic mass production is going to be. And it’s satisfying to cycle to work (in a field of bright-yellow lycra) in clothing that is not only better looking and natural, but more functional as well.
Future pieces in this series will look at Brooks saddles, Quoc Pham shoes and Dashing Tweeds, as well as Rapha’s gloves (both goatskin and African hair sheep leather). Any other suggestions welcome.