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At my local Costco, I see a Kirkland brand 100% merino wool quarter-zip sweater being sold for $25. On EMS, I see a SmartWool 100% merino wool half-zip sweater costing $140. Would I be potentially putting myself more at risk if I wore the Kirkland sweater as a layer?

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Risk of what? Buying something that wears out faster, has less nice seams, doesn't trap as much air? –  bmike Dec 4 '12 at 16:15

6 Answers 6

Smart Wool main claim to fame is that their treated wool doesn't itch as bad or shrink as much in washing machines. Otherwise, its all the same stuff as far as its insulating capabilities go.

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On the short run, the answer is no. You will not put yourself at more risk wearing a cheaper product.

On the long run, the answer is not so clear. There must be a reason behind a cheap price:

  • Is it because of the materials used?
  • Is it because of cheap labour?
  • Is it because the Kirkland brand was able to do an amazing offer?

It is very hard to answer those questions precisely. One thing is sure that on the long run, your sweater will endure more stress. It might fail or succeed.

I was curious to do the same comparison in a store that I trust and who is known to be a fair trade store. The merino sweaters were sold between $50 and $100 depending on the model.

If I compare with your two items, I would probably say that you selected two extremes.

I will probably choose to buy an item whose price will fall between the two for a normal usage. For an extended usage, I will go for the topnotch which is not always the most expensive but rarely the cheapest.

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Part of the Smart Wool premium is that they pride themselves on sourcing their wool exclusively from New Zealand farmers, whereas Kirkland, being the Costco house brand, likely sources it from anyone willing to sell it for cheap. –  whatsisname Nov 30 '12 at 15:11

As with everything -- it depends.

My wool socks from wal-mart have outlasted literally everything else we have purchased, including most of our gear. They still keep my toes toasty warm. Wal-mart is a go-to kind of store for hunters in the south because they have good inexpensive warm clothes. Wool socks from wal-mart generally last me around ten years/pair...

However, walk two aisles over, or even in the same aisle, and you will find things that will fail in ten days.

The question could more generally be stated as "does price guarantee quality", and the answer is no. While the stuff two aisles over at wal-mart might fail, the same is true of most other stores. For instance we never buy several of the "Name" hiking brands because they have failed us and rapidly at that (I leave out names because I don't want to smear a brand).

Whether or not you will be more "at risk" depends solely on following one rule. NEVER test new gear at the extremes, no matter how cool, or what you paid for it. Test where failure is not fatal. And that goes just as equally for "name" as for "generic"

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Great answer. I don't usually shop at Wal-Mart (after a few "fail in ten days" experiences) but I wouldn't mind some inexpensive wool socks that last. Is there a particular version you're getting? Also, I understand your reasons but I'd love to know which brands of shoes worked for you and which didn't. –  Mr.Wizard Nov 30 '12 at 15:35
@Mr.Wizard -- I'll go out to a walamrt and see if I can snag a picture of the last ones I bought. One thing with Hunting equipment and Wal-Mart is that there is a VERY tiny window. You can only get the good stuff during hunting season, and early. By the time season has started they are usually sold out of the stuff you actually want to buy. –  Russell Steen Nov 30 '12 at 16:49

I think your basis for this question is a bit out of skew with the myself more at risk clause.

The difference between truly top end Merino Wool and lesser quality wool is the micron (µm) being used. The really good quality stuff, say, Icebreaker, uses the highest quality micron which results in a warmer garment that is able to handle ‘peripheral temperature regulation - and therefore thermoregulation - better for most outdoor activities.

If, however we address the subject question you are asking, Is department store merino wool less effective than branded (i.e. SmartWool) merino wool in staying warm and wicking moisture? than the answer to that, as explained above, is absolutely, "YES".

It will be highly superior in regards to helping you stay warm in a broader range of temperatures and helping 'wick away moisture' from your body through the Merino next-to-skin base layer and into your other base layers.

But there is sooo much more to this question. What are your other base layers? Do they have a high enough MVTR to take the moisture from the next-to-skin layer to the second layer, and to the third layer, and out to the soft shell layer if the conditions require you to wear one. If just one of these base layer garments is not doing its job, you are going to sweat out the sub-layer garments, at which point none of this matters.

But, anyway, yes, the top name Merino wool outdoor garments that use the ultra high micron wool are far better than some no-name random garment off the shelf.

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I find this confusing. Micron refers to diameter. "Highest quality micron" thus doesn't completely make sense. Does higher quality mean smaller or larger diameter? Micron and quality of the wool are related but not completely linearly bound properties. While smaller micron may wick faster, it also wears faster which is an important consideration to any hiker. –  Russell Steen Jan 7 at 15:46

Like being said you could also ask if price scales with quality. That's not true in general as we all know.

What hasn't been said is that there are big differences in terms of labor conditions, sustainability, environmental influence and animal protection. Especially the latter is a very critical issue in the Merino industry. I am not going to blame a brand here but please have this in mind. Fair gained quality wool or down has its price. But we don't have to buy the most expensive stuff therefore.

(similar discussion for e.g. recyclable Hardshells)

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Thanks for the link about mulesing, which was very informative. These two WP articles give information about some manufacturers and wholesalers who source their wool from farmers who don't practice –  Ben Crowell Jan 1 at 14:30

Also, On top of it all.. someone has to pay for advertisements as well. The more hype a company puts out, they need to make that money back which then raises there price of items. That's why Costco can sell things so cheap as well as purchasing so many at a time which then reduces the overall price for you. On top of that, you pay a membership fee at Costco (As do I). I actually just purchased 71% Merino wool socks from costco for hiking (4 pairs for 12 dollars) while I was about to click "Buy" on a website for 2 pairs of Smartwool PhD's for 50 bucks. Huge difference? Probably not.. Did I save 38 dollars and end up with double the socks that feel just as good? Yup. Comes down to preference. Also, Costco purchases name brand items and throws there "Kirkland" Logo on it. Just do your research. Great post by the way.

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