I feel something of a fraud writing this review. After all, it isn’t really a review, with technical specs outlined, comparisons made and a final judgement given. No, this is really just an opportunity for me to look over some of the gear I’ve purchased in the last few years and highlight what about it is really, really good. Besides, I still think of gear reviews as being for new models, new designs and new colours, but today’s review has a similarity to the Prana trousers love letter – this top is black.
I bought my Smartwool Microweight top back in 2009, and when the parcel arrived at the office, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to dig in and get a look; after all, online shopping often has a lucky dip aspect to it. I’d also bought an Icebreaker long sleeve, and my colleagues were motivated to comment that I looked like I was going on an Arctic expedition (little did they know that I was actually heading off for a year in Canada!). But although my Smartwool top looked functional, it hardly caught my eye – black, long sleeves, a round neck and only the tiniest amount of detailing in the form of a small printed logo on the wrist. Now I realise that the understated charm of the Smartwool top is its greatest strength.
Because it isn’t designed to draw attention to itself, the top is enormously versatile and very adaptable, whether you’re out doing something fun or just off to the pub. It’s the lightest merino wool knit offered by Smartwool, so it doesn’t feel bulky or restrictive, and it packs small and rolls up tightly without becoming creased or crumpled. When you wear a synthetic fabric base layer (a Helly Hansen, for example) the design shouts to all and sundry ‘this is not normal clothing!’; the Smartwool top remains mute, and while it is a perfect base layer, it also does a great impersonation of a plain black long sleeve top, suited to wearing under cardigans, sweaters or on its own with a pair of jeans.
Here's me wearing it under a shirt for a casual game of table hockey (no puck, we used a die) at Bear on the Lake hostel, Nova Scotia
When you need the warmth of an extra layer, it’s perfect. I’ve worn it over a synthetic vest top with fleece, down and waterproofs over for skiing, ice climbing, dog sledding and snowshoeing, and it’s ideal. When we spent a few days in the wilderness hostels of the Rockies last September, it got pulled from the dirty laundry and worn the whole time, morning til night, and quite often through the night too. You’ll be delighted to hear that merino wool’s most well known quality – odour resistance – is alive, well and working in this top!
Leaving Algonquin Park, it was cool and grey. The Smartwool (there's the logo on the wrist!) kept me warm, and kept the biting insects at bay too.
The top’s also the perfect weight and warmth for our current spring weather. It’s my regular choice for trips to the climbing wall, out on a walk or on my bike, with just a waterproof or on its own if the sun is shining. The knit is stretchy, making movement easy and with a longish body and nice wrist-covering sleeves, there are no awkward bits of midriff unintentionally on show. And thankfully (given its popularity) it washes easily (the instructions say cold but I just put it on 40 degrees with everything else) and dries quickly.
First extra layer on as we stopped at Garibaldi Lake and the temperature began to drop.
And after more than a year of intensive wash and wear, the top is holding up very well. Perhaps it has stretched a little around the cuffs; there’s a small hole that appeared on one sleeve, which a stitch has sorted out; but the size is still right, the colour is still dark and the fabric hasn’t bobbled. And if you, like me, find that wool is usually irritating to the skin, I can say that I haven’t had any problems wearing the Smartwool – it doesn’t make me itch and I can happily wear it next to my skin without issues. Although all of the merino wool tops manufactured as part of this generation of natural material baselayers claim to be easy on the skin, I’m definitely happiest with the Smartwool – it’s reliably non-itchy, unlike the Icebreaker which sometimes causes a reaction. So whatever Smartwool are doing, it’s working! I hope you're able to find some of their clothing and give it a go.