By: Orvis Staff
Wintry weather is blowing in and it’s time to bundle up. With so many options, it can be difficult to choose the best outerwear to battle the cold. Shearling and sherpa are two of the materials that always seem to pop up as frost threatens to turn to snow. What is the difference between shearling and sherpa? When it comes to the shearling versus sherpa debate, is one better than the other? Here’s a peek at what makes these two coveted textiles perfect options for frigid temperatures.
What Is Shearling?
The term ‘shearling’ describes a lamb that has had only one shearing. A shearling sheepskin is the skin of a shearling lamb that’s tanned, processed, and dyed with the wool still intact. This creates a suede or leather material with a soft wool on the opposite side. Because the wool is still attached to the skin, shearling is a fur product. Shearling lambskin is used for luxury coats, jackets, hats, gloves, and more.
The use of sheepskin as outerwear dates back to prehistoric times when fur was essential to survival. More recently, rugged, ultra-warm sheepskin bomber jackets were produced during World War I to protect pilots who flew uninsulated planes in below-freezing temperatures. The use of sheepskin for military apparel continued through World War II.
The material made the leap from military applications to modern fashion, with appearances on the runway, on the street, and in the cold-weather arsenal of many outdoorsmen. From coats, mittens, and hats to slippers and fuzzy, slipper-like boots, sheepskin is a top textile pick. Blankets and rugs bring sheepskin into the home for décor that pulls double duty—the handsome material offers a comfortable, breathable, moisture-wicking option for any season.
What makes a sheepskin ‘shearling?’ Some retailers use the term shearling to refer to any sheepskin tanned with the wool intact, but a single shearing is what creates the soft, uniform look and feel sought after in a true shearling hide. While the term ‘shearling’ is somewhat fluid, there is one rule that must be followed: the sheepskin must be processed, tanned, and dyed with the wool intact. A stitched-in wool layer, whether genuine or faux, is not true shearling.
Most commonly, shearling products are manufactured with the suede on the outside and wool on the inside, but the reverse also may be true. Wool-side-out collars prevent the snow and moisture from building up at the neckline, and textured wool trim contrasts nicely against the smooth suede of a jacket.
To prevent damage, shearling is not recommended for regular wear in the rain, but it will repel water and dry easily at room temperature if you happen to be caught in a storm. Store your shearling items in a dry area to prevent mildew, and leave washing to leather cleaning professionals.
Benefits of Shearling
- Insulates and retains heat naturally, even in frigid temperatures.
- Water-repellent outer suede, moisture-wicking inner wool for versatile protection from the elements.
- Durable, long-lasting material resists tears, rips, and snags.
- Flame-resistant, static-resistant, and antibacterial.
- Has a reputation as a luxurious addition to a wardrobe.
- Ages beautifully with proper care, gets more supple through time.
- Many sheepskin products are by-products of the meat industry, reclaiming materials that would otherwise be disposed of.
What is Sherpa?
Sherpa was named for its resemblance to the wool-lined clothing worn by the Sherpa people of Nepal. Sometimes called ‘faux shearling,’ the synthetic material is made from polyester, acrylic, or cotton. Sherpa mimics the bumpy texture of sheep’s wool. The faux-sheepskin fabric is often used to line coats because it performs wonderfully in freezing temperatures. The dense pile of the lightweight material insulates against the cold without bulk, for a high-performance alternative to fur or sheepskin. Sherpa is also used for blankets, mittens, hats, boots, and slippers.
On its own, sherpa would not make a warm jacket—the wind would cut right through. But a cotton, denim, or microsuede outer shell, paired with a stitched or bonded sherpa lining, creates a tough, windproof option that insulates against the cold.
Sherpa-lined outerwear has surged in popularity, favored for its modern features, cold-weather performance, and vintage style cues. Faux-shearling is more affordable than sheepskin, but quality is still important. Poorly constructed sherpa products may become matted or pill with use.
Nor is sherpa just for outerwear. Your canine companion will gladly snuggle up with a sherpa fleece dog blanket. He will love the cozy softness, and you’ll appreciate how easy it is to wash.
While some cry that faux just isn’t the same, science fiction fans have been talking about the shearling-like trench coat worn by Ryan Gosling’s Officer K in Blade Runner 2049. Costume designers created a sherpa-lined cotton coat, then laminated and painted it—resulting in faux-shearling that looks like the real deal. This animal-free sherpa coat stayed true to the dire future created in the novel by Philip K. Dick.
Benefits of Sherpa
- Synthetic material is easy to clean.
- The loft makes sherpa-lined products incredibly warm.
- Can insulate better than shearling, without the weight or bulk.
- Wicks moisture and dries quickly.
- It’s less expensive than shearling products.
- Mimics the look of wool, but does not use animal products.
Shearling has stood the test of time, but sherpa has made a name for itself as a cold-weather champion. There is a shearling or sherpa coat for every style. From rugged, ready-to-work coats to luxurious, fashionable jackets, both shearling and sherpa can take on the bitter chill of winter. Sherpa and shearling are smart picks for warmth and style built to last.