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Wool + synthetic = ultimate layering?

Friday, December 10th, 2010

There’s a lot of debate in the cycling world about whether wool or synthetics are better. Personally, like most things in my life, I take a hybrid approach. I recently developed a new layering technique that I thought I’d share: wear a long-sleeved synthetic baselayer with a short-sleeved wool jersey over it (and then a jacket over that). Try it, it’s amazing.

Here’s the back story: I have a couple of long-sleeved wool baselayers, which I use in cool to cold temperatures. I’m a big fan of these, but I started to realize that if I dressed warmly enough to keep my torso warm, my arms would overheat. I started looking around for a midweight sleeveless baselayer. What I discovered is, nearly all of the appropriate sleeveless garments are very thin, and intended to be worn in hot weather, not intended to keep you warm. I guess they figure that if you don’t want sleeves, you’re trying to keep cool. Not quite true in my case.

I also have some short- and long-sleeved synthetic baselayers/jerseys. I tried a few combinations of these with the wool baselayers. I still had the same problem.

Then, I remembered that I had purchased a short-sleeved wool cycling jersey this summer at a deep discount. I had read that wool is cool in the summer, and wanted to find out if that was true. For me, this claim turned out not to be true at all. I was miserable in warm weather in the short-sleeved wool jersey. And it didn’t block wind well enough in cool weather to be used alone. So, I put it on a shelf and didn’t think about it for a few months.

When I remembered I had that jersey, I tried wearing it over a long-sleeved synthetic baselayer. For me, this combination is absolutely perfect! The synthetic baselayer wicks the sweat away from my skin, and keeps my arms warm enough. The wool jersey keeps my core warm. Of course, you can add and remove layers as necessary. I wear all of this under a wind shell. You could try variations using a vest, depending on conditions.

I hope this helps someone out there. This tip seems obvious in hindsight, but it took a lot of trial and error to arrive at this technique. Do you have any layering tips to share?

13 Responses to “Wool + synthetic = ultimate layering?”

  1. Scott Loveless Says:

    I’ll probably be tarred and feathered for saying this, or maybe they’ll just call me a blasphemer and make me wear a big letter B on all my clothes, but when it’s cold and I’m not at risk of sweating 3 gallons per minute I’ll make liberal use of cotton. Thin synthetic short sleeve T, a cotton long sleeve T, maybe a fleece pullover or a sweater, and a wind shell. If all the synthetic shirts are dirty, I’ll wear 100% cotton.

  2. John Says:

    Most of us have our layers worked out through experience. It was 14F when I left the house this morning and the layers worked just fine.

  3. Apertome Says:

    Scott: It depends on the type of riding you’re doing, certainly. I wear some cotton to work, which means I also wear it while commuting. But if you’re going to be out riding intensely for an hour or more, that probably wouldn’t work as well. Personally, I don’t like fleece, in most cases. It tends to trap too much sweat.

  4. David Crowell Says:

    I’ve been mixing the wool and synthetic for a couple of years now. 🙂

    I have synthetic base layers. I found a wool sweater used at Goodwill, so I added that. Later, I bought wool socks. I use a light windbreaker over my upper layers.

    As far as cotton, not on any kind of long rides, other than as an outer layer on bottom (jeans over synthetic). I don’t yet own and wool pants/tights.

  5. Jon Grinder Says:

    I wear a Craft synthetic long-sleeved base layer, with arm warmers, a fleece vest and a wool sweater under a GoreTex-copy jacket when it is really cold. I subtract pieces as the temps warm up (the beauty of layering).
    Sometimes, I wear a short-sleeved cotton tee over the base layer.

    Works well for me.

  6. Apertome Says:

    David: Yeah, I’ve been mixing wool and synthetic for a while, but I only recently discovered this particular combination.

    Jon: It sounds like you have a similar setup, with the fleece vest in the mix. Keeping the core warmer than the arms, anyway.

  7. Barturtle Says:

    I’ve found using multiple layers of wool in very cold temps to work well for me. I’ve got two long sleeve wool jerseys, and they take me down to 30 or so, and I add a wind vest between them and that’s been very comfortable down to 17.

    My favorite piece of wool is my pair of wool armwarmers (Sockguy), I’m looking forward to the ride when I feel the need to use those under both jerseys!

  8. Doug Says:

    I wear all synthetic all the time. I sweat heavy in all temps. I could go out in 10F in a t-shirt and windbreaker and soak the T in sweat on the first hill. Because of the large volume of sweat I create I have found wool doesn’t work for me. Sure it wicks, but nothing can wick all the sweat I make. I find wool can hold as much as twice the volume of water as a similar synthetic shirt. Not good in the temps I ride in during the winter. I also find that once it’s wet, wool doesn’t hold it’s shape like synthetic clothing.

    I may be alone in my thinking out here….again….but I’ll take synthetic over wool for active sports anytime. Now if we’re talking about sitting around the campfire on a winter camping trip, wool definitely keeps me warmer than a synthetic top. But it doesn’t pack down as well as a synthetic top.

    Can you tell I’ve put some thought into this?

  9. Steve A Says:

    You guys are much more scientific than I am. The only wool I have are socks, but it is fascinating to read the variety of opinions about it. Down to the coldest it gets around here in North Texas, all I’ve needed is a heavy sweatshirt and my light cycling jacket to block the wind.

  10. Tim S Says:

    Prophetic post before today’s adventure. Looks like I learned a lesson today. “Listen to Michael.”

  11. Chandra Says:

    Nice post, Michael!

    I used to use wool more often when I lived in St. Louis. Here in North TX, it doesn’t get terribly cold like St. Louis or where you are in IN. So, I am able to get away with not too many layers. I use my Patagonia Capilene 3 Long-Sleeve Zip T and my Burley Waterproof Rain Jacket. I always use wool socks in the winter. I use my running tights (not padded bicycling kind) and wear my regular shorts over it (for pockets). That does it for me on most cold days.

    I wonder sometimes how long it will take me to re-acclimatize to the weather up north.

    Peace 🙂

  12. Michael Says:

    I’m with Doug. I used to wear a synthetic base, LS wool Tee and hard shell, but am much more comfortable down to about 0 deg f in a skin-tight LS synth base, arm warmers and soft shell jacket (Mtn Hardwear Super Power Transition, in my case.) Wool just holds too much heat and moisture.

    See also

  13. mike Says:


    For layers… I’m comfy to 20s in an Ibex Wool baselayer, Ibex short sleeve jersey, and then my Shower’s Pass jacket (assuming mixed conditions). If colder, I ditch the base layer, jersey next to the skin, with a mid weight Ibex layer. Then Shower’s Pass or Fleece, or a softshell.

    All depends.

    For lowers – I wear some running tights with Bicycle Fixation city knicks, or my SportHill XC ski pants. Andiamo unpadded underneath, or lightly padded shorts depending on how I’m feeling or what I’m doing.

    Hopefully getting a pair of Lake’s this holiday from a really sweet wife that will take care of the feet.

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