Merino wool has its origin in Spain; however, the Merino sheep was not indigenous to Spain but rather came about as a result of selective breeding practices. Genetic studies trace the origin of Merino sheep with cross-breeding indigenous Spanish Churro ewes with rams of other breeds that took place over centuries.
Included in the genetic mix is the Mouflon wild sheep of the Caspian region. Cross-breeding occurred with Italian rams during Roman times, North African rams during the medieval times, and English fine wool rams in the 15th century.
Today, Australia is viewed as the home of merino wool, producing the world’s highest quality wool thanks to further selective breeding supported by both an ideal climate and excellent grazing conditions. Merino wool is produced by many different countries throughout the world that include New Zealand, United States, China, Argentina, South Africa, United Kingdom, India Turkey, Sudan, and many more.
Different Merino Breeds.
The majority of Merino sheep are bred and farmed for their wool which is a sustainable farming practice. But not all Merino sheep are bred purely for their wool. The German Mutton Merino and the South African mutton Merino are dual-purpose sheep, providing both meat and wool. Interestingly, the South African mutton Merino breed was bred from German stock.
Here is a list that includes some of the more popular Merino breeds:
Strong Wool Merino
German Mutton Merino
South African Merino (wool) and Mutton Merino
The different Merino breeds produce different quality wool but all the wool types are functional in their use. Quality specifications determine the price and end-use of the different wool grades. Fine quality wool is used to manufacture clothing while other grades are used to manufacture blankets, throws, bedding, rugs, carpets, and other items. In essence, all wool types conform to the natural benefits of wool. It is only when wool is blended with other natural fabrics or synthetic fabrics that the natural benefits may be compromised depending upon the blend percentage.
To give you an idea of the scope of the wool industry we’ll look at the Australian wool industry as it is the biggest source of Merino wool of all the markets. In a 2007 report, there were an estimated 30 000 wool farms in Australia each with flocks of between 1 000 and 40 000 sheep (a total of 107 million sheep) which produced between 10 and 1 500 bales of wool each. Of this, there were 20 000 different types of wool graded by 22 000 registered wool classers. These figures translated into a $3bn market in 2020.
Benefits of Merino Wool
Merino wool is a natural and sustainable product with many benefits that include:
Controls body temperature by keeping you warm when cold and cool when you are hot.
Moisture resistant up to 30% of its weight. Wicking is wool's natural method of moisture control.
There are a number of other benefits that promote better health and living comfort.
Merino sheep are sheared for their wool and the animal is not harmed during the process which takes a few minutes. It’s much like getting a haircut, and like human hair, Merino wool grows back too.
Through selective breeding programs, Merino sheep have become an integral part of modern society, providing for many of our essential needs as well as being incorporated as a permanent part of some cultures.
6 Interesting Facts about Merino Sheep and Wool.
Basotho Heritage Blankets
The Kingdom of Lesotho, landlocked by South Africa, is home to the Basotho nation. This mountain kingdom experiences extreme winter conditions and protection from the elements is made possible through the use of Merino wool blankets.
Basotho blankets are made from 90% Merino wool with a 10% cotton blend. They are not only used in the home but are worn as garments which is an essential part of the Basotho heritage. Both men and women wear Basotho designed and styled blankets where the designs boast strong significant messages depicting the status of the wearer.
There are also ceremonial blankets used for special occasions and children are gifted with blankets at birth. Each milestone in life is represented in the many Basotho blanket designs which carry the heritage and traditions of the nation.
Merino Wool Production
A Merino sheep can produce up to 227lbs (103 Kg) of wool in its lifetime. In ideal farming conditions, Merino sheep will thrive, producing top-quality wool year on year. Being dirt-resistant means that dirt is not absorbed into the wool fibers but will remain on the outside and is easily cleaned off.
Lanolin is the natural oil that coats Merino wool and it serves to repel water so Merino sheep do not have to shelter in the rain. Oddly enough, wool also absorbs moisture despite the oil coating. Wool fibers can absorb up to 30% of their weight in moisture through wicking while remaining dry to the touch. In comparison, wool will draw ten times more moisture away from the skin as a synthetic fabric while maintaining its beneficial qualities.
Furthermore, Lanolin has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties that prevent infections on the sheep’s skin. Bacteria, mildew, and dust mites are all repelled. These properties or benefits remain in the wool and protect us in the exact same manner.
Merino Wool Grades
Merino wool is graded by measuring the diameter of the fiber. There are basically six different grades of Merino wool:
measures 17.5 microns or below. This is the softest and rarest grade of wool. Ideal for lightweight underclothing and knitwear.
17.6 to18.5 microns.
Usually, 18.5 t6o 19.5 microns, mostly used in the clothing industry.
Fine and Medium Merino
19,6 to 20.5 microns. Ideal for outer garments.
6 to 22.5 microns, mostly used for blankets, rugs, and carpets.
6 to 24 microns, mostly used for blankets, rugs, and carpets.
Strength of Merino Wool
A strength test was conducted on different fibers and interestingly wool rated the best out of the four fibers tested. The idea was to bend the fiber back on itself to see at what point it would break. Here are the stats:
Wool bent back on itself 20 000 times without breaking, cotton was second which managed 3 200 bends, third was silk at 1 800 bends and last was rayon only managing 75 bends before the fiber broke.
Now, the strength of wool can be measured in different ways as well. As far as warmth is concerned, it is estimated that “when absorbing moisture on a cold morning, wool releases the energy equivalent of an electric blanket plugged in for 8 hours”.
Strength is also measured by elasticity and Merino wool has a three-dimensional corkscrew structure which has a built-in memory to revert back to the original shape when stretched or pulled. This structure contributes greatly to the resilience of wool as a fabric.
Merino Sheep Field of Vision
Merino sheep have an almost 360-degree field of vision meaning that they do not have to turn their head to see behind them. Naturally, there will always be a blind spot due to body and wool mass in relation to the proximity of an object but their ability to view their surroundings is indeed remarkable.
Merino Wool Texture
Unlike traditional wool, Merino wool is much softer and smoother. This resulted from centuries of selective breeding to produce finer and more resilient wool. Merino fiber diameters range from 11 microns to 40 microns but you will notice that useable diameters range from ultra-fine to about 24 microns.
Consumers are spoilt for choice when it comes to wool products; however, Merino wool is associated with lasting comfort and quality, thanks to its naturally fine soft texture and abundant benefits.
We can emulate the fine soft texture of Merino wool in synthetic fabrics but natural Merino wool still remains in a class of its own. Besides the pleasing texture, the many benefits of Merino wool-like being naturally antimicrobial (odor resistant) cannot be duplicated in synthetic fibers. Other natural fibers that resemble Merino wool texture do not have the same array of natural benefits.
Merino wool holds the lion’s share of the global wool industry for obvious reasons. The ongoing demand for Merino wool remains high as it provides the best natural insulating properties of all fabrics and has many other beneficial properties too. It’s important to mention that demand has been positively affected by the sustainability of wool farming.
As a natural fiber wool has no competition and to this point, technology has not been able to emulate the wonders of Merino wool. I guess biomimicry has its limits too.