Why Synthetics for our Knickers?

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.
Find out more about our knickers!

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Comments (36)

  • cbratina

    I agree with your fabric choice. I can see knickers when it is below 60 deg F but would prefer shorts above that. Why not also offer shorts?
    What padded “under shorts” do you recommend? Wearing normal cycling shorts under would get pretty hot in the summer. Vulpine has a very nice pair of 140 gm merino wool padded boxers.

    May 12, 2016 at 4:51 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Have you tried our knickers? They are quite thin, and they really disappear. Even in hot weather, you won’t notice them. That is also why we recommend standard cycling shorts under them.

      May 12, 2016 at 5:13 am
  • ORiordan

    Jan, do you have any stockists for your knickers* in the UK? I know velovelocity stock Compass tyres but they don’t sell clothing.
    I’m a big fan of clothing like this because it is so versatile both on and off the bike.
    * despite the word “knickers” meaning a completely different item of clothing in the UK 😉

    May 12, 2016 at 5:38 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We currently don’t wholesale the knickers, because the margins are very small. They are hand-sewn in Seattle, and we don’t really want to farm out production to a low-wage country. They are complex to make and take a lot of time. So we only sell them directly for the time being. However, they are light, so shipping to the UK isn’t prohibitive.

      May 12, 2016 at 5:53 am
      • ORiordan

        Thank Jan. The issue ordering goods direct from the US isn’t really the shipping costs but the 20% import duty!
        I’m visiting the US later this year so will see if I can ship to the address I’ll be staying at.

        May 12, 2016 at 6:16 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Yes, custom’s duties and international shipping really are difficult for small companies. If we shipped a container of knickers that cost $ 3 each to make, then shipping would be inexpensive, and custom’s duties would be assessed on the manufacturing cost… I wish we could do much about this.
          Your idea of shipping to a hotel, friend or relative is no problem. Many of our customers do that.

          May 12, 2016 at 6:27 am
  • Rod Bruckdorfer

    A great product that is comfortable to wear and looks great.

    May 12, 2016 at 5:46 am
  • 47hasbegun

    My experience with synthetic versus natural fibers is the same. I’ve seen lots of photos of people who’ve worn through their ‘commuter jeans’, while I’ve logged tens of thousands of miles with my nylon cargo shorts in all weather without any noticeable wear. Regular washing and hang-drying keeps the odors from accumulating and ‘baking in.’

    May 12, 2016 at 8:08 am
  • Gary Reymers

    I wear these knickers. The description is accurate. These are great knickers.

    May 12, 2016 at 8:27 am
  • jasonferrier

    These look pretty good. I’m with you on wearing these all the time without concern of higher temperatures as I survive many summertime rides in a wool jersey and other synthetic shorts over top normal cycling shorts.
    My concern with these is my body proportions – I have a 30″ waist with the quads of a 36″ waist “normal” person and I have a hard time finding *any* clothing that fits me.
    Could you add the quad measurements on the knickers to the site alongside the waist sizes? It would be nice to have mid-quad measurement where it is usually the largest as well as the bottom of the quad right above the knee.

    May 12, 2016 at 9:47 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You shouldn’t have any problems, since these have a loose fit. Yes, many cyclists have a hard time finding regular clothes, since our quads seem to be “overdeveloped”.

      May 12, 2016 at 8:30 pm
  • Bigschill

    They look great and sound perfect…. but wondering about the fit. are they narrow or wider through the hip? Many knickers ( like Swrve) are cut to narrow for us mesomorphic cyclists.

    May 12, 2016 at 9:47 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      They have a slightly loose fit, so they should be fine for you. These definitely aren’t the “skinny pants” fit that you see from some other brands.

      May 12, 2016 at 8:29 pm
  • Terry Bradley

    Love my pair here in Texas and really appreciate the size 40. Hard to find larger sizes in cycling clothes.

    May 12, 2016 at 9:57 am
  • marmotte27

    I’ve worn your knickers fornquite a few rides recently, I can confirm they don’t get smelly, even in warm weather (not being worn directly on the skin probably helps). I was comfortable to wear them even in the evening after the ride.
    As for the durability of the material, they do show some slight pilling in the seat area (after about 800 km). I seem to fall somehow in between sizes, my waist measurement makes me a clear size 34, however, I do need to tighten up the waistband quite a bit. Unfortunately it tends to become loose after a while, I need to retighten it several times on every ride.

    May 12, 2016 at 10:18 am
  • mimitabby

    once again a lovely product which completely ignores half the population.. women.. SIGH.

    May 12, 2016 at 10:28 am
  • Allan Folz

    FWIW, I have a favorite pair knickers made of woollen wool with a leather reinforcement in the seat. They have lasted for many years and show only a slight amount of “buffing” on the leather where my sit-bones contact that saddle. The leather patch also gives them a bit of style, akin to patches on the classic “commando” sweater.
    On the down-side, woollen wool is a bit warmer than worsted wool. Even though they are a light-weight fabric, they get uncomfortable as temps head north of ~75 F. That’s manageable most of the time here in and around Cascadia, but I imagine they would be unbearable in the humid summers of the mid-west and east coast.

    May 12, 2016 at 12:45 pm
  • Gert

    Agree with the above about Customs
    Customs is a pain. And worst of all my postal service charges me more than 20 USD for handling the Customs payment. Your product are very expensive, but based on my allthough limited experience the quality warrants it. But when You add 25 percent VAT/ Customs and 20 USD on top You really have to want it badly.
    Fortunately I had tires shipped to my hotel last time I was in the US. And allready have a prepared list for my next trip. Hopefully then the knickers will be available in my size if that exist (size 32/36 in regular pants)

    May 12, 2016 at 3:48 pm
  • Dr J

    Looks like a quality product. I very much like the design. However, they are not padded, which brings a question about their real usability on bike. Certainly, you could wear regular bike shorts underneath but this is kind of moot point. If I choose to wear padded cycling shorts why would I want to put knickers on top of them? And if I want to wear knickers I wouldn’t want other shorts underneath. Why not just make knickers with a high quality chamois?

    May 12, 2016 at 7:59 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      A padded chamois works only if it stays in place. That is why cycling shorts are tight-fitting. The knickers are loose-fitting, so a padded insert wouldn’t be of much use. And you also wouldn’t want a padded insert when you wear the knickers for hiking or other off-the-bike pursuits. So I feel it’s best to separate the functions of padding and outerwear. In fact, in most clothing, you have undergarments and outerwear…

      May 12, 2016 at 8:26 pm
    • Matthew J

      If Compass knickers were padded then those of us cyclists perfectly happy to ride without padding would have to go elsewhere.
      I’ve toured as far as across the US without wearing any padding. Of course I was riding a well fit custom.

      May 13, 2016 at 5:41 am
  • DaveS

    How much does the color change when the knickers are wet? My concern is the sweaty areas showing after a hot or hard ride.

    May 13, 2016 at 7:52 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The dark color doesn’t change noticeably – it gets a little darker, but not much. But most of all, I don’t think you’ll get sweaty areas on these. At least I haven’t experienced that, and I’ve worn them on very hot rides.

      May 13, 2016 at 8:00 am
  • Peter Stokely

    My wife bought me these for Christmas, they are so comfortable. I wear them with a padded sort insert. It is mid-May in DC and I am still wearing them (it was been cool and rainy here). The are great for trips to the dentist office, commuting, evening wearing around the house. I love them!

    May 13, 2016 at 12:16 pm
  • Jim Roberts

    I have two pair of these and they are both wearing thin and fraying in the back of my thighs after not too many miles. I am 6’3″ and weigh in at 180 pounds so the wear is not due to a LPA (large protruding ass). Maybe it’s just my physique and fact that these have quite a baggy fit for my skinny legs. They are really cool knickers but I am sure I won’t even get close to one season out of them. Glad others are enjoying them.
    Thanks for all you do for the bicycling world, Jan.

    May 14, 2016 at 10:54 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am sorry that your knickers don’t seem to last as long as mine. Please report back as you wear them more – your feedback is very valuable as we work on improving our products.

      May 16, 2016 at 11:04 pm
      • Jim Roberts

        The tan pair probably have less than two hundred miles on them and are showing considerable wear and fraying. Neither pair will get me through the summer I am sure. Bummer.
        On a lighter side, my Compass 24X42 double crankset on my touring bike is working flawlessly thus far and I am digging my Compass 700X28C Chinook tires on my road bike which are a treat to ride.
        Shall I send my knickers back to you for your examination?

        May 16, 2016 at 11:53 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Keep riding the knickers until they get too thin to wear. Then we’ll look at them. It not like a failure would cause injury, so there is little risk to extend the “experiment”. To consider all possible pieces of information, what type of saddle are you using?

          May 17, 2016 at 12:01 am
  • Janice

    theyre too expensive. i am a public school teacher and if i had to buy all the “good” stuff that seems required for serious bicyclists, i would have even less money than i do already. $150 for a wool jersey? french bags and cranks…and brakes for $345? i suppose its perfectly appropriate for a small percentage of the population, in a plutocratic culture in decline. thank goodness for shutter dynamos…

    May 15, 2016 at 7:14 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      First, I agree that American public school teachers should get paid more than they do. Our future rests on your shoulders…
      However, I don’t think high-end bicycles are too expensive. You are right that they aren’t cheap, but where else is the absolute best still affordable for people of average means? When I was a college student, I bought a Campagnolo-equipped Bianchi. It cost a lot, but less than a good used car. Even my part-time job earned enough to pay for it.
      Speaking of cars, can you buy the ultimate Ferrari for four times the price of a bare-bones Honda Fit? Of course not – it’s more like 15 times as much. Yes a great custom bicycle costs only about four times as much as a Surly…
      Of course, a Honda Fit may be all you need, but if you really enjoy riding, a great bicycle will make your ride much more enjoyable. (I am sure the Ferrari is a better drive, too,but I am unlikely ever to find out.)
      And even the most expensive custom bicycle (and all the clothes you can wear while riding it) costs less than a Honda Fit.

      May 16, 2016 at 11:15 pm
  • irregularmedic

    “In stock in all sizes on our website.” Unless you’re a Clyde. 🙁

    May 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We have been slowly, but steadily expanding our size range. As a small company, it’s difficult to cater to the outliers in the human body spectrum. One of our contributors is at the other end, and she faces the same problem.

      May 16, 2016 at 11:16 pm
      • irregularmedic

        Fair enough. I kind of knew better, but when I read the part the I quoted above I got excited and thought that maybe it really did mean something along the lines of “all sizes”.

        May 17, 2016 at 5:07 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          What I meant to say is that all sizes we offer are in stock. In the past, demand has been so high that we’ve run out…

          May 17, 2016 at 5:19 am
  • Jim Roberts

    I ride three different saddles on three different bikes. Specialized Romin on my road bike, Brooks B17 on the touring bike and an ISM PL1.0 on my townie bike. The Specialized Romin gets the most mileage.

    May 17, 2016 at 9:38 am

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