Embers Merino – cycling kit with heart and soul

Embers Merino are a small, niche company who make technical outdoor clothing using merino wool.

I got the chance to review the ‘Glow’ jersey from their cycling range recently and was immediately impressed – read the review here. It’s quality technical kit, and it looks great.

The company is based in Derbyshire, here in the UK, and having grown up in that county I felt it was my duty to find out more about one of my own.

Merino sheep (Image: IFPRI-IMAGES CC via Flickr)
Merino sheep
(Image: IFPRI-IMAGES CC via Flickr)

The company style themselves as the ‘UK specialist in merino outdoor clothing’ and the detail and background on their website (along with the quality of the jersey I reviewed) certainly suggests they know their stuff.

They know where there merino comes from and where the sheep are farmed, what is done to the wool when it comes off the sheep, and they’re happy to vouch for the standards of animal welfare and environmental impact involved in the making of their cycling kit.

We live in a world where many of us are quite happy to buy our clothing at rock bottom prices, produced using low quality material and using questionable methods – at least for a long as we can distract ourselves from the thought of the sweat shops and the general exploitation.

I’m easily sold on the value of a small company with heart and soul.

To be clear, Embers are not alone in this kind of approach, and I’m not suggesting all mass market kit manufacturers are evil purveyors of sub-standard goods, but a small company like Embers who are concerned with doing the right thing is something worth shouting about.

I had a brief chat recently with co-founder of Embers Merino Chris Champion about the kit, the company and, of course, the merino wool:

embers2As specialists in merino outdoor clothing you’re clearly big fans of the stuff. What makes merino so great as a material for making cycling kit?

Chris Champion: Yes, we’re big fans. We’ve been designing and selling merino clothing in the UK for 10 years now, long before it became as widely known as it is today.

For our cycle Jerseys we use bi-component knit fabrics that have merino against the skin and a polyester outer face. We call this Core Merino but other companies use similar fabrics branded as Sportwool.

The reason for using Core Merino is two fold:

Cycling can be a very sweaty affair and pure merino can get swamped during really intense activity. The polyester element helps to wick moisture away from the merino against the skin which helps to keep the fabric drier for longer.

The second reason is durability – cycling can be pretty tough on fabrics. An example would be the rear pockets on a jersey. A pure merino fabric wouldn’t provide the mechanical stability or abrasion resistance required for such a high stress area but core merino fabric can handle it with ease, meaning that your bike tool or mobile phone won’t slowly wear a hole in the fabric and end up left on the road!

You are very specific about where your merino comes from. Why New Zealand?

CC: The merino from NZ is considered the best in the world. The merino fibres tend to be longer, finer and cleaner than elsewhere. The animal welfare and environmental standards in NZ are also excellent.

Regardless of those facts we were always going to buy from NZ as co – founder Marianna is from Christchurch and already had contacts with garment makers and fabric mills in the country before we set up the business so it was an easy and reliable choice.

Chatsworth House - smack bang in the middle of cycling country (Image: Rob Bendall via Wikimedia CC)
Chatsworth House – smack bang in the middle of cycling country
(Image: Rob Bendall via Wikimedia CC)

Being based in Derbyshire, which I know for a fact has some great cycling, if someone came to visit for one ride which pristine piece of tarmac or dramatic climb would you point them in the direction of?

CC: After years of searching we are still to find any pristine tarmac in Derbyshire!

But what we lack in smooth black tarmac we make up for in steep savage gravely country lanes through tiny villages with fabulous views. A particular favourite is the climb out of the village of Beeley to the moors above, which takes in some superb views and is part of a loop which goes right past Chatsworth House – a pretty impressive sight for those new to Derbyshire.

I notice on your website you tested your ‘Blaise’ cycling range this year on Mont Ventoux (definitely my favourite climb, I’d ride up there every day if I could). How did you get on? Did you remember to tip your hat to the Tom Simpson memorial?

CC: Rob and his friend Dave went out for a long weekend and rode up several times, and calm and settled weather made the trip a real pleasure. Cool mornings and sunny afternoons meant that the different weights of jerseys all got a good testing. Another trip is being planned for next year so I suppose that is the ultimate testament, and yes, they did stop off on the way back down to take a look at the Tom Simpson memorial.

Interestingly we have a former veteran road racing world champion who lives in Belper (now in his late 80’s I would guess). He lives just up the road from us and we sometimes chat when we pass by. He once invited me in and the walls of his little house are absolutely covered in fantastic black and white photographs of his racing career.

He used to ride with Tom Simpson and was recalling the days when they would train and race on the hills around our area.

embers8Your range of kit goes well beyond just cycling. Are you cycling nuts who decided to branch out, or just all-round outdoor types?

CC: We started in 2005 with outdoor merino products and added our first cycling items about two years later.

We basically make kit for the sports we like to do ourselves. Going out to test new samples is one of the best parts of the job! In addition to cycling we are also into winter sports, white-water kayaking, and trekking. Merino is so versatile that it is useful for all of those activities and more.

Obviously the cycling range is sport specific but there is a lot of crossover in terms of the usage of most of our other garments. In Autumn you may be out trail running in your merino base-layer and a few weeks later you may be cross country skiing in it!

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