RBR Review

Wabi Woolens Long-Sleeve Jersey
    By Mike Dayton

    Price:  $140
    Source:  website, Oregon bike shops
    Colors:  sandstone red, eggplant, espresso
    Features:  interlock wool fabric, half zipper in front, three rear pockets with inset zipper pocket, elastic waistband
    How obtained:  sample from company
    RBR advertiser:  yes
    Tested:  20 hours


        * double-knit fabric resists wind and rain
        *wool's warmth and wickability
        * large, no-sag rear pockets
        *no-risk warranty
        *made in USA


        * jersey must be shrunk before it fits
        *hand-washing highly recommended
        *dark colors are less visible on the road

    I've become RBR's go-to guy when a new wool product looks to be worth reviewing. It’s good work if you can get it. I’m getting a firsthand look at the resurgence in wool clothing for cycling. And I like what I’m seeing.

    In autumn '07 I reviewed wool base layers from Bouré and Joneswares. Both earned high marks. This time I tried a jersey from Wabi Woolens, a new company in Portland, Oregon, where wet weather makes wool a cycling necessity rather than a fashion fad.

    Wabi Woolens is the brainchild of Harth Huffman, a cyclist who apparently was not happy with the wool jerseys in the marketplace in the mid-1990s. He says he invested “several long years of designing, testing and dreaming” to come up with his own version. Wabi Woolens was launched online in January 2008.

    Like most modern woolen cycling apparel, Wabi products are 100% merino wool. But I soon discovered something that sets Wabi apart from the pack: This company’s jerseys should be washed by hand, not in a washing machine.

    So at a time when other companies have perfected manufacturing processes that allow wool to be machine-washable, Huffman is taking the opposite tack. Why? His e-mail response: “I think processing removes some of the hardiness of the wool, creating a less durable, less weather-resistant fiber.” More on this in a moment.

    The Incredible Shrinking Jersey

    It took a while for the Wabi philosophy to sink in. When my jersey arrived, it hung on me like a curtain. Three inches of sleeve exceeded the length of my fingers. I’d asked for an XL jersey to review, so I checked the label. Yup -- XL. But there was no way this was the right size.

    I called Huffman and told him the jersey might be a tad too XL.

    Of course it is! he said. Didn’t you read the washing instructions?

    Well, no -- I’m used to instructions for cycling computers, not cycling jerseys. So I pulled out the sheet and, sure enough, it said this baby was intended to shrink as much as 3 inches in the body and sleeves. There was a 13-step washing and caring procedure. I’d heard the term “laundry list,” but I’d never seen it applied to actual laundry.

    But jersey prep wasn’t that complicated and could actually be done in 4 steps. First I soaked it for about an hour in warm water and mild detergent. Next, I gave it a warm-water rinse. Then I rolled it in a towel to draw off excess water. Finally I laid the jersey flat to dry overnight.

    The next morning I tried it on. Voila! A nice snug fit, as promised. I racked up big style points with my beautiful wife Kelly. No lie, she said: “Are you sure you want to use that for cycling? Can’t you just wear it around town?” (Wabi does make this jersey without rear pockets -- an "adventure jersey" for off-bike use -- for $130.

    So the fashion battle appeared to be won, but that was just half the fight. How would this jersey work on the open road?

    Testing, Testing . . .

    Mother Nature came through with the perfect testing conditions -- a cool North Carolina weekend with a century ride on tap. At our 9 a.m. start the temperature was in the low 40s (6C) with chilly, damp air. We had fog and occasional light drizzle until the clouds lifted in the afternoon. I wore a vest early but stripped it off as we warmed up on rolling hills.

    Even without anything under the jersey, I was comfortable. The Wabi wool wasn't itchy and it displayed a key attribute of wool garments -- the ability to wick perspiration to keep skin drier and warmer. The tight interlock fabric also did a good job of cutting the wind. Huffman says on his website that the wool's shrinkage “creates a slightly heavier fabric with a perfect density for wind and water resistance.” Perhaps shrinkage is something more than a Seinfeld gag after all.

    I finished that ride and others impressed. This is indeed a fine article of clothing and Huffman has clearly seen to every last detail. He filled me in on a few of them: The shoulder seams are sewn with a serger (a type of sewing machine) and then cover-stitched. A sturdy front zipper is sewn into a double layer of fabric. The shoulders and neck also have a second layer of fabric for extra protection in wet or cool weather.

    Then there are the 3 rear pockets. They may be the best I’ve seen on any jersey. I’m a randonneur and a big believer in the utility of rear pockets for storing food, gloves, a cell phone, a camera . . . but load the pockets of other wool jerseys I’ve owned and they sag dreadfully. Huffman has that problem licked. The Wabi pockets are set a bit higher on the back, and they’re tall and deep with elastic at the top. They’re bar-tacked for strength and reinforced on the inside with additional fabric. There’s also a zippered compartment on the outside of the middle pocket for a credit card, ID or folding money. (Click photo to zoom. 

    Washing This Wool

    After wearing the jersey on three long rides, I hand-washed it a second time. It held its size and shape. I could get used to this added labor, but sooner or later I knew my Wabiwear might find its way into the washing machine. What would happen then, I asked.

    According to Huffman, the "harm" to the jersey would be minimal. The official line is hand-wash only, he said, but some customers disregard this advice. He encouraged me to take my test jersey for a spin in the washer -- on the gentle cycle, of course, and in warm water with a mild detergent.
    “Believe me," he said, "the jersey has been tested in the washing machine and I know customers who ignore the instructions and machine wash them regularly. The jersey is over-built to withstand more abuse than other jerseys. The machine won't kill it and the customer may not even notice any difference if the jersey has room to shrink a bit more and still fit well.”

    Regardless of how you wash it, don't dare put it in a dryer -- unless you know a kid who'd like a nice wool jersey.

    Wherefore Wabi?

    It’s time to mention the company’s name, which is drawn from the Japanese term wabi sabi. There is no easy translation, but the website says Wabi suggests rustic simplicity or understated elegance.

    That Japanese aesthetic shines through in the careful attention to detail and “understated" colors, which lean toward the darker end of the spectrum. My jersey is described as sandstone red, but it's closer to cranberry. The color is a far cry from the high-visibility hues popular among cyclists for greater safety on the road, and I’ve seen online criticism of Wabi for that very reason. It's unfortunate that the other two jersey colors are even less visible.

    It’s also time to talk price: $140 plus $10 shipping. That’s about twice what wool base layers cost, although it’s in line with what some other companies charge for long-sleeve jerseys. In my opinion, the performance of a Wabi jersey makes it worth every penny. And if you are an American who prefers products made in the USA, you'll be pleased. While the merino wool is imported from New Zealand, the Wabi fabric is knit in New York and the design and manufacturing are done in Portland.

    Huffman knows he’ll have an uphill battle in getting customers to understand his sizing. “I tell people right off the bat that this wool will shrink and I size them accordingly,” he told me. “Educating customers to this will continue to be one of the biggest challenges for Wabi Woolens.”

    To put consumers at ease, Huffman offers this generous, no-risk warranty: “Wabi Woolens guarantees your satisfaction with the product or your money back for 30 days after date of purchase. Wash it, wear it, ride in it. If you love it, keep it. If you don’t love it, return it. Return shipping is at no charge, so customers have a no-risk trial period with their Wabi Woolens clothing.” Nice!

    Bottom line:  If you’re a wool fan who is not put off by the prep and extra care Wabi Woolens requires, you are going to like this jersey.