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.