By Ed Pavelka
I have to like this product. After all, I designed it (sort of). And then Joneswares did an excellent job of making it.
Here's the quick story:
I rode through more than a dozen Pennsylvania winters in a long-sleeve Duofold base layer. It was comfortable next to my skin, but what I liked most was its tall turtleneck top. It let me tuck in my balaclava to seal out a major pet peeve -- icy air on my neck.
After about 4,000 washings, the old gray Duofold was so worn that it was almost transparent. So I went shopping for another base layer just like it. After 45 minutes of Googling and checking every likely company -- nada, not a single turtleneck to be found. I was baffled. How could such a functional garment not be made anymore?
Instead of giving up, I mailed the old Duofold shirt to Joneswares and asked if they could make one just like it. Two weeks later it arrived. And so on this December afternoon I'll be riding in a new T-top base layer that's even better than the old Duofold. That's because instead of being made of a synthetic material (Thermastat polyester), Joneswares used 100% Merino wool and included a couple of design improvements.
The ability to customize clothing sets Joneswares apart from many other apparel companies. Joneswares is small enough to deal individually with customers and it's run by 2 athletic sisters, Deb Bacharach and Lynn Jones Peredina, who understand the needs of active people. They are the daughters of Grace and Lester Jones, who founded Jones Cycle Wear in Massachusetts in 1978 and built a reputation for quality among athletes in the Northeast (pre-internet era).
The sisters offer an expanding line of products -- all wool and all U.S.-made. They won't balk at tweaking an existing product and even welcome the opportunity (see custom sizing policy).
For me, they sewed a turtleneck to their standard Cycle Midweight Baselayer and lengthened both the tail (already longer than the front) and the snug, cuffed sleeves. These tweaks accommodate my long torso and arms and provide full coverage from my chin to the middle of my butt, with sleeves too long to ever ride up my wrists when I reach for a water bottle. I'm happily sealed against uncomfortable drafts.
Joneswares thought this design was good enough to add to their Baselayers collection. But first they had their wool supplier in New Zealand tweak the fabric. It now has a texture that provides better wind resistance and a softer feel on skin. The garment (shown above) is in the Joneswares line as the Interval Midweight Wool Turtleneck, priced at $76.
Like for me, Joneswares will take a shot at making anything you want if a standard design doesn't quite meet your needs. The only stipulation -- and it's a positive one for reasons we'll soon see -- is that at Joneswares you can have any material you want as long as it's wool.
The company also has another Pavelka-inspired product in its collection. Called the More Than a Neck 'Gator, this $26 item is my idea for a "neck warmer" similar in concept to arm or leg warmers. That is, easily slipped on when conditions call for extra protection and then removed when they don't.
The Neck 'Gator is simply a turtleneck with enough extra fabric to also cover the upper chest and back. It folds small enough to carry in a jersey pocket. I had the idea for this 30 years ago and actually bought a wool dickey from a men's store. It was made for fashion, not cycling, and after several washings it had shrunk so much that I couldn't get my head through it. Joneswares' extra-soft 400-gram organic wool version won't do that.
I have experience with one other Joneswares product -- the Sprint Lightweight Tank Baselayer ($45). This stock item is sleeveless and can be worn year-round under a summer jersey or as a first layer in colder temperatures. It's relatively thin, made of 195-gram Merino, and so soft that you won't believe it's wool if you aren't familiar with the modern fabric.
Both the Neck 'Gator and Sprint Baselayer share the high quality of the Interval Turtleneck. They're functionally designed and have reinforced stitching in high-stress areas. They come in several hues besides black (the Turtleneck's only color).
These 3 wool products were provided as review samples by Joneswares. I like them so much that I've ordered 2 other items with my credit card -- the Balaclava ($30) and the $40 Performance Leg Warmers (maybe not the best name, given the P-word's association with a certain company's cheap cyclewear).
By the way, the gram weights mentioned indicate the wool's insulation and warmth. Lynn at Joneswares explains, "Typically we consider 160-220 grams per meter as lightweight, 220-300 grams as midweight, 300-400 grams as heavyweight, and above 400 grams as expedition weight." When layering, she says, wear the lighter weights closer to the skin.
Let me count the ways:
- Wool is natural, renewable, biodegradable and sustainable. The finest kind -- the one that most athletic clothing makers use -- comes from Merino sheep. There are plenty of them, especially in New Zealand, where they grow more wool all the time. Synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, are oil-based and not nearly as wholesome, even though some do a decent job of imitating wool's performance.
- Wool is warm in winter and cool in summer. Before synthetics started gaining a foothold 30-40 years ago, cycling shorts and jerseys were wool. Wool worked (still does) because it has the hydrophilic ability to wick moisture from skin. In fact, it can absorb as much as 10 times the moisture as synthetics. In winter, this keeps skin drier and also warmer as the fibers trap air. In summer, the ability to pull away moisture reduces clamminess and helps sweat evaporate, a process that aids cooling.
- Wool's performance can be customized. For example, using a heavyweight fabric, the exterior weave can have a wind-resistant knit structure while the inside is smooth to feel nice on skin. Lightweight wool fabric can have a slightly more open knit structure that works well as a first layer to transport moisture.
- Wool fibers shed water. They have tiny overlapping scales that act sort of like roof shingles in the rain. This, plus wool's ability to continue insulating even when wet, is why the fabric works so well in inclement weather.
- Wool is durable. In lab tests, wool fibers are able to bend back on themselves more than 20,000 times without breaking. Cotton breaks after 3,200 bending cycles, silk after 1,800 cycles, and rayon after just 75 cycles. In addition, wool fibers can be stretched up to 70% and still return to their original length. All this means wool clothing can last for years if it's well made and, like Joneswares garments, has reinforced stitching in high-stress areas.
- Wool is stink-resistant. This stems from its ability to shed external moisture and let internal moisture pass through. Wetness doesn't stay in the fabric to fester into mildew and mold, which creates odor. In fact, wool garments can be worn several times between washings before body odor becomes a problem, a boon on tours or at camps. Don't try this with synthetics.
- Wool isn't scratchy. Old wool was, but modern Merino fabric is so fine that itching shouldn't be a problem even for those who seem to be allergic to wool. Actually, wool is hypo-allergenic so the likelihood of a true allergic reaction is remote. But the old-fashioned wool that people are familiar with has large scales on the fibers that mesh with skin pores to cause prickliness. The various grades of Merino wool generally have scales too small to cause this problem, although I have felt an occasional itch inside the 270-gram fabric used for the Interval Turtleneck. I'll mention this, although I can't be sure it's due to the wool or dry winter skin.
Joneswares has eliminated another itch factor by only using wool that hasn't been processed with chlorine or other harsh chemicals. Sometimes an "allergic" reaction is the skin's response to such substances.
- Wool can be machine washed. Modern Merino wool retains its size, shape and performance qualities without any undue special care. Simply hang it or lay it flat to dry rather than put it in a dryer. Actually, I've spaced out and machine-dried my Sprint Lightweight Tank Baselayer a couple of times with no apparent harm. I haven't goofed yet with the Interval Turtleneck but it's bound to happen one day. My hunch is that it won't be a disaster.
Speaking of washing, it's when taking wet wool out of the Maytag that you notice how heavy it can be. Even dry it weighs more than a comparable synthetic garment. For example, the Interval Wool Turtleneck is 385 grams while the old Duofold is 265. That's significant if you value weight over function. For me, on a cold winter ride only one of these factors is important.
- Wool improves physical performance. A physiological study at the Polytechnic Institute of Wales found that compared to wearing synthetics:
- heart rate under wool was significantly lower 100% of the time
- the humidity next to the skin under wool was significantly lower 71% of the time
- the temperature rise of the skin above 91F (33C) degrees, considered the optimum level for comfort, was significantly higher under synthetic materials 80% of the time
A study at the Hohenstein Research Institute in Germany showed similar results. The findings indicate an inherent wool benefit vs. synthetics during exercise.
A decade ago, lighter and more comfortable synthetics were the rage for cold or inclement weather. The sheep were off the back. But now more and more companies are producing highly effective wool garments using the finer Merino fabrics.
The Joneswares wool products I've tried function as promised and seem so well made that they should last for years. This family-run company also welcomes special orders -- an impressive combination of customer service and quality clothing that makes cycling better.