Why Synthetics for our Knickers?

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Clothing

Why Synthetics for our Knickers?

I’ve long championed wool as a great material for cycling clothes, so some riders were surprised that our Compass knickers are made from synthetics. Why didn’t we choose wool, or some other natural material?
We chose the fabric after careful consideration and rigorous testing. We briefly considered cotton, but it gets heavy and cold when wet – not a good choice for cycling clothes.

Wool is a great choice because it adapts to a great range of temperatures, and it doesn’t smell even when you are sweaty. That is why it’s virtually ideal for cycling jerseys. (Our Bicycle Quarterly jerseys are made from ultra-soft Merino wool.)
However, wool isn’t very abrasion resistant. Where your seat rubs on your bike’s saddle, wool tends to wear out relatively quickly. Within a few thousand miles, I wore through the seat on all wool shorts and knickers that I’ve tried. In fact, since I started wearing the Compass knickers over my wool tights, the tights no longer wear out as they used to.
Key to the Compass knickers’ performance is the thin fabric that doesn’t constrict your pedaling motion at all. The cut is very sophisticated to prevent bunching up as you pedal. Features like the hidden drawstrings at the knees require multiple layers of fabric that would be too bulky when made from wool. That is also the reason why we don’t use a thicker material like Schoeller fabric – it would inhibit the performance of our knickers.
We’ve tested the final prototypes of the Compass knickers over many thousands of miles. I wore them for a Flèche 24-hour ride, during most of last year’s Paris-Brest-Paris (above), and on various tours in the Cascades, in France and in Japan. I now wear them every time I head out on a bike. During cold weather, I wear them over my tights. I’ve even used them for hiking.
My prototype knickers finally suffered a long tear and had to be retired, after more than 10,000 km of hard riding. And the tear was in a weird location and may have been caused by the brush I was hiking through, rather than wear and tear from normal riding. So we know these knickers last a long time.
What about the propensity of synthetics to retain odors? The knickers are airy enough that they don’t get smelly, yet they are close-fitting enough that they don’t billow in the wind and slow you down. Two months ago, I wore the original prototypes in the Seattle International Randonneurs 100 km Populaire. That event is open to all, and it always sees some very strong riders participate. We rode the 100 kilometers, including stops for controls, in 3:24 hours. During this spirited ride, not once did I notice my knickers. But when we went to a pub afterward, I didn’t feel conspicuous in too-tight-fitting cycling shorts.
It’s what makes the Compass knickers unique: They offer the performance of technical cycling clothes with a more traditional style and superb durability. In fact, that is the goal for all our components, and we go (or ride) the extra mile to get there.

Update 3/2023: The knickers have been discontinued. Our supplier here in Seattle no longer is able to make them for us.

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