What is Merino Wool?

Written by: Deb German

Merino is the wool from a Merino sheep—it can come from any of the several types of Merino sheep, but from no other sheep. Generations acclimating to harsh environments have resulted in the dense, insulating, heat-trapping fleece that sets apart the Merino sheep from its woollen cousins. But unlike the bulkier and itchier wool coats worn by other types of sheep, Merino wool is soft: one of the finest wools available, Merino is renowned for this property, together with a multitude of other winsome characteristics that make it so desirable for base layers and jumpers alike. Read on to learn more about this appealing and versatile textile.

Woolly Words: a Few Terms Explained
Broadly, wool is a general term describing fibres spun from the hair of any of several mammals—not only sheep, but also alpacas, goats, llamas, vicuñas, and even rabbits (think Angora). It is one of the oldest fibres used by man, dating almost to the beginning of civilisation, favoured for its comfort and naturally insulating properties.

A fleece is the coat of wool shorn from a single adult sheep: one ewe (adult female sheep) yields between 10 and 18 pounds of wool, rams more because they are larger. That’s enough to make four or five jumpers after washing and processing the wool. Lambswool specifically is produced from a lamb’s first shearing, which usually happens around seven months. It can come from any variety of sheep.

Merino Sheep: Ancient Animals with Modern Mettle
The Merino is considered one of the world’s oldest breeds, the earliest flocks appearing in 12th-century Spain. Prior to the 18th century, exporting Merino sheep from Spain was a crime punishable by death, a quality control measure that underscored the value of this fine wool. The Australians began breeding Merino sheep in 1797, about when European settlement began; following Spain’s paradigm, Australia banned the export of Merino sheep until 1896. Today Australia remains a big producer of Merino, together with China and New Zealand; the sheep have retained their hardy reputation, adaptable to varied environments but especially to cold climates. Modern Merino farmers continue to practise selective breeding to further refine this exquisite wool.

Size Matters: How Merino Wool is Measured
Wool’s diameter is measured in microns, a unit of length equal to one millionth of a metre; this number determines the grade of the wool, with fewer microns indicating a higher grade, or finer wool. Merino wool fibres are consistently microscopic, varying from 11.5 to 24 microns. (For comparison’s sake, a human hair measures about 100 microns.)

Wool’s quality is also determined by its “crimp,” or the number of bends in a fibre per unit length. The more bends in the wool fibre, the finer the crimp, the longer the fibre, and the better the wool’s spinning capacity. Merino’s long, fine crimp, together with its minuscule diameter, produces a yarn that is softer than other types of wool and therefore less itchy and irritating. Its smooth texture makes it comfortable directly against the skin and thus ideal for use in athletic base layers. But Merino also lends itself to jumpers and dressier couture, and blends willingly with silk and cashmere.

From Sheep to Shop: How Merino Wool Becomes Woollen Clothing
After shearing, wool fibres transform into yarn at the hands of spinners, weavers, and knitters, using traditional and modern methods:

1. Scouring – a process that varies by manufacturer, but typically includes passing the wool through a machine where it is washed repeatedly to remove the grease. It is then machine dried and passed through a number of machines where it is mechanically beaten to remove water-insoluble compounds, including sand and dust.

2. Carding
– the tangled clumps of clean fleece are passed through metal teeth that separate the fibres into continuous, long threads, and blends them into slivers to form a wool “top.”

3. Spinning – the wool top is spun using one of two methods:

● The “worsted” technique produces a fine yarn of tightly woven fibres and a smooth texture.
● The “woollen” technique produces shorter fibres that create bulkier, more loosely woven yarns.

4. Weaving or Knitting – each produces wool fabric with a different texture:

● Weaving results in a smooth, consistent fabric typically achieved on a mechanical loom.
● Knitting creates a fabric with interlocking loops.

5. Dyeing and Finishing
– achieved through various processes known as “fulling” (immersion in water to interlock the fibres), “crabbing” (setting the interlocks), and “decating” (protecting the fabric against shrinkage)

The finished, colourfast wool fabric is now ready for manufacturing.

The Benefits of Merino Wool, Naturally
The Merino’s fleece is made for extremes: it breathes in the summer, insulates in the winter, yet remains exceptionally soft and lightweight. Like other types of wool, Merino is naturally warm, durable, water repelling, and insulating, but it achieves these with a finer, softer fibre that feels luxurious against the skin.

● Because of its fine fibres, Merino possesses a natural pliancy, allowing it to stretch with you and then resume its natural shape: it’s an ideal textile for for workout clothing.

● Merino naturally wicks moisture from the skin, keeping the wearer dry whilst sweating; in so doing, Merino also regulates the body’s temperature. These properties make it ideal both for cold-weather activewear, and for insulating base layers. And Merino continues to insulate even when it’s wet.

● Merino breathes: its fibres absorb moisture vapour and then release it to evaporation. The result is a material less likely to feel clammy against your skin. Merino is more breathable than both cotton and synthetic textiles.

● Merino adapts: it warms you when it’s cold and cools you when it’s warm because it reacts to changes in your body temperature, keeping you from overheating during exertion and even improving the quality of your sleep.

● Ever the revolutionary, Merino resists:

Static – it will not cling and instead drapes nicely.
Odour – sweat will not linger on your skin on Merino’s watch, and the naturally antibacterial lanolin it contains resists body odours from the sweat.
Stains – thanks to the fibre’s natural protective outer layer; it also tends to attract less dirt and lint because it does not generate static.
Wrinkles – because it retains its shape.
Fire – nor will it melt or stick to the skin.
UV Radiation – and it manages this better than cotton and most synthetics.

● Merino is also smart for the planet: it’s renewable—each sheep produces a new fleece every year. And like human hair, Merino wool is made of biodegradable keratin; it decomposes when disposed of, and then releases nutrients back into the soil, acting as a fertiliser.

As plucky and adaptable as Merino is for outdoor clothing and performance sports applications, its smooth, refined finish and resistance to “pilling” make it as appealing for city couture. However you choose to wear Merino, you really can’t go wrong with this versatile, beautiful wool.

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