Matthew Guertin launched Borealis Wool Co. as a way to directly engage with — and slowly shift — not only our economic paradigm, but also our ecological paradigm. The small Minnesota brand that makes merino wool clothing is driven by an almost existential mindset.
“The best part is really that idea of creating a product that you feel is creating a small, positive change in the way things are done,” Matthew said.
“Small businesses are really important,” he said. “We can only go so far until everything is monopolized and I don’t think we’ll like the way the world will look when that happens.”
Additionally, the benefits of merino — to both individuals and society as a whole — are numerous, Matthew said. It’s a renewable resource in that sheep can be sheared many times over. It’s biodegradable, and just as importantly, it’s not a petroleum-based product. Additionally, it needs less care than other material often used in technical outdoor apparel.
“We find that most people who wear merino don’t feel compelled to wash it obsessively,” Matthew said. While acknowledging that it sounds wonky, and ultimately comes down to personal preference, decisions around how to care for products are as important as what products someone buys in the first place in terms of environmental impacts, he said.
Matthew draws this all back to what he terms an “improved circular economy — basically making better use of resources in a way that’s not harming the planet.”
Matthew first got the idea for Borealis Wool Co. while floating down a river with his cousin, who had just started a sheep farm in Western Minnesota. “You know, I love wool, this is something I want to do,” he remembers saying.
Matthew had just sold a previous business, which gave him a little bit of money and time, allowing him to expand his horizons and follow possibilities. Initially, Matthew reached out to merino wool suppliers through email and phone. But he soon realized that nobody responded, and the few times they did, it was with “obscure, obtuse” answers.
So he did what any driven entrepreneur would do — he bought a ticket to New Zealand. When the plane landed in Auckland, he got in a rental car, drove to a friend’s place, splashed water on his face, made a sandwich and then showed up on the doorstep on some of the world’s best merino wool vendors. After those appointments, he headed to the South Island, to visit ‘sheep stations’ as they’re called there, to see the actual farming in action.
“The immersion in the whole curiosity and process just kind of took over at that point,” Matthew said. “It was hitting gold in a way.” He was mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape, as well as seeing firsthand how his merino wool clothing is made.
“Just being in the birthplace of all these products I’d used and loved was a very cool thing,” he said. He bought as much merino fabric as he could, excited to start working with it.
“It’s a tough industry to break into, but once you’re in there, you at least have the vague potential to create something world class,” he said. “I was just naive enough to actually do it.”
Matthew is the first to admit that building an elevated lifestyle outdoor brand turned out to be tougher than he’d anticipated, particularly because he’s crunched for time due to working full-time at another job.
“There’s certainly a romantic honeymoon period, where you’re idealizing things and starting with the whole product side of it,” he said. “The challenge is building the business. Doing the marketing.” But while it’s at times slow going, he continues to be driven by the idea of improving the world through merino wool.
“It’s a pretty amazing fiber,” he said. “We haven’t been able to man-make a fiber that mimics what merino does. It insulates, but also breathes. It absorbs a lot of moisture. It’s wicking. It has a high warmth-to-weight ratio. It can also cool you. And it’s antimicrobial.”
Matthew explained that lanolin, an oil that coats sheep’s wool, prevents bacteria from growing, which is what gives the fiber its anti-stink feature.
“Man is always trying to do things better than nature, to outsmart nature,” Matthew said. “But really we should learn from nature and work in harmony with what nature gives us. Wool is so sensual in that way. It comes from another creature’s body. You wear it on your body. It’s symbolic of our relationship with nature in a way.”
When not working on Borealis Wool Co. or tied up with his landscaping job, Matthew can be found in the wilds of Minnesota — more often than not in the Boundary Waters. While he’s traveled the world over, and in fact continues to travel quite often, his heart has been given over to “the vibes of the north.”
“There’s something about the more time you spend in a place, it kind of just seeps into your bones, wherever that is,” he said. Borealis’ Starry Loon Tee was inspired by this experience, with 5% of sales going to Save the Boundary Waters, an area currently being threatened by mining operations.
“Every choice we make is kind of a vote, every little thing, every dollar we spend is a vote on the world we want to see exist,” Matthew said. “Choices all add up. It’s cool to realize that.”