What is Merino Wool and is it REALLY Sustainable?

Did you know that the soft and luxurious wool that you have been wearing could be coming from a sheep that has been around for over 700 years?

Yes, we’re talking about merino wool!

But what is merino wool? And what makes it a popular choice for clothing and accessories?

This wonder fiber is not only soft and cozy but also has some incredible properties that make it stand out from other types of wool like Virgin wool

So in this blog post, we will explore everything you need to know about merino wool, including its origin and history, production, properties, and uses.

what is merino wool?

What is merino wool? Definition 

Merino wool is a type of natural fiber from the Merino sheep.

This is a breed of sheep with fine wool that is known to be originally from Spain but is now primarily found in Australia and New Zealand.

Merino wool is known for its softness, warmth, and moisture-wicking properties, making it a popular choice for clothing and accessories.

What does merino wool feel like?

Merino wool clothing feels soft and luxurious to the touch, similar to cashmere or silk.

The fibers are fine and lightweight and they have a natural elasticity that allows them to stretch and move with the body.

Additionally, merino wool fabric doesn’t get all wrinkled or lose its shape as easily as other fabrics do.

Because of its softness and flexibility, merino wool is a popular choice for clothing and accessories that are worn close to the skin, such as base layers, socks, and scarves.

It has a natural drape and a subtle sheen, which gives it a sophisticated and elegant appearance.

Merino wool origin–Where it comes from

The Merino sheep is one of the oldest breeds of sheep in the world dating back to the 12th century.

The sheep were initially bred in Spain for their fine wool, which was highly valued for its softness, warmth, and durability.

Merino wool production in Spain was controlled by the Royal Wool Guild, which had strict rules and regulations to ensure the quality of the wool.

The wool was exported to other countries and it quickly became a valuable commodity.

In fact, during the 18th century, merino wool was so valuable that the Spanish monarchy tried to keep it a secret by forbidding the export of merino sheep.

However, in the late 18th century, King George III of England imported some Merino sheep from Spain and introduced them to his kingdom.

merino wool

This sparked a new era of Merino wool production outside of Spain with countries like Germany, France, and Australia investing heavily in Merino sheep breeding programs.

Australia, in particular, has become the largest producer of Merino wool in the world, thanks to its favorable climate and large land areas suitable for sheep farming.

Merino wool has become a significant industry in Australia, providing employment and income for many people.

In fact, the wool industry in Australia is worth billions of dollars with Merino wool being one of the most highly valued types of wool.

Today, Australia and New Zealand are the largest producers of Merino wool, accounting for over 90% of the global supply.

What is merino wool made of?

Merino wool is composed of a protein called keratin, the same protein that makes up our own hair and nails.

This protein gives merino wool fibers soft, springy, and resilient qualities, which make the wool highly valued in the textile industry.

The wool fibers are also very fine with a diameter of around 18-25 microns.

This fine diameter allows the wool to be spun into yarns that are soft to the touch and comfortable to wear next to the skin.

Additionally, the fibers create tiny air pockets that trap body heat, providing excellent insulation even in cold and damp conditions

Merino wool fiber characteristics/properties/qualities

The many characteristics of merino wool fibers are what make the wool an excellent choice for clothing and accessories.

Some of these key characteristics include:

Characteristic Description
Softness Merino wool is incredibly soft to the touch, making it comfortable to wear next to the skin since it is less itchy.
Elasticity Merino wool is naturally elastic, allowing it to stretch and bounce back to its original shape.
Moisture-wicking The wool fibers are excellent at wicking away moisture keeping you dry and comfortable even during intense physical activity. The wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling damp.
Odor resistance Merino wool is naturally odor-resistant, which means it doesn’t need to be washed as frequently as other materials.
Breathability It is highly breathable, allowing air to circulate around the body and regulate temperature.
Warmth Merino wool can keep you warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather due to its excellent insulation properties.
Durability Merino wool fibers are strong and resilient, making them resistant to wear and tear.
Sustainable & Biodegradable It is a renewable resource as merino sheep can regrow their wool each year. It is also biodegradable and can be recycled.

Merino wool types

There are several different types of merino wool, each with its own unique qualities and characteristics.

The diameter of the fibers is what sets the different types of merino wool apart. The finer the fiber, the softer and more luxurious the resulting fabric will be.

For instance, fine merino wool has really thin fibers while medium merino wool has slightly thicker fibers.

On the other hand, strong merino wool has even thicker fibers making it coarser than the other types.

Here’s a summary of the most common types;

1. Fine merino wool

  • Has fibers that are less than 19 microns in diameter
  • Used for luxury garments and accessories, such as high-end suits, scarves, and shawls

2. Medium merino wool

  • Has fibers between 19 and 24 microns in diameter
  • It’s slightly coarser than fine merino wool but still soft and comfortable to wear.
  • Used for sweaters, hats, and gloves.

3. Strong merino wool

  • Has fibers that are between 24 and 29 microns in diameter
  • It’s the coarsest and strongest type of merino wool
  • Often used for rugged outdoor clothing, such as hiking socks and base layers.

4. Superwash merino wool

  • It has been treated to make it machine washable
  • The wool fibers are coated in a polymer resin to prevent felting or shrinking in the wash
  • Use mainly for baby clothes and other items that require frequent washing.

5. Organic merino wool

  • This is wool produced without the use of pesticides or other harmful chemicals
  • It’s popular among eco-conscious consumers who want to support sustainable and ethical farming practices.

Aside from the thickness of the fibers, other factors can also differentiate one type of merino wool from another.

For example, superwash merino wool has been treated with a special coating that makes it machine washable and helps it resist shrinking or felting.

Organic merino wool on the other hand is produced without the use of any harmful chemicals or pesticides, making it a sustainable and eco-friendly option.

So, the type of merino wool that’s best for you depends on what you’re using it for and what qualities you’re looking for. For a soft and luxurious sweater, you might want to go with fine merino wool, while for a rugged hiking sock, strong merino wool might be a better choice.

How is merino wool fabric made?

No doubt the process of making merino wool fabric is labor intensive as it requires a combination of traditional craft techniques and modern machinery.

Generally, it involves 8 basic steps, which include shearing, sorting, scouring, gilling and carding, combing, spinning, weaving or knitting, and finishing.

Step 1: Shearing

The first step in making merino wool fabric is shearing the sheep. This involves carefully clipping the fleece from the sheep’s body.

Skilled shearers use electric or manual clippers to carefully remove the fleece, taking care not to harm the animal.

Step 2: Sorting and grading

Once the fleece has been sheared, it’s sorted and graded based on the thickness and quality of the fibers.

This process separates the finer and coarser fibers, which are then used for different types of products.

Step 3: Scouring

This process is called scouring and it involves washing the wool in hot water with detergent to remove dirt, grease, and other impurities like Lanolin.

Lanolin is a waxy substance that is naturally produced by sheep to protect their wool from the elements.

It needs to be removed as it makes the wool greasy causing it to attract dirt and bacteria.

Step 4: Gilling and Carding 

Once the wool has been scoured, it’s gilled and carded to align the fibers uniformly.

The gilling is done using a gilling machine which aligns the fibers and combs them to remove impurities and create a more uniform texture.

Next, the wool is carded using a machine called a carder that further helps to align the fibers and create a thin web of wool.

The fibers are then collected on a rotating drum, which creates a thin layer of wool known as a “carded sliver.”

Step 5: Combing

The combing process is typically done to produce a higher quality, finer wool product suitable for applications such as high-end clothing or luxury textiles.

So, not all merino wool goes through this process.

In this process, the wool is fed through a series of combs that separate the longer fibers from the shorter ones.

The shorter fibers, known as “noils,” are removed and set aside for use in lower-grade products such as felt or insulation.

By removing the shorter fibers and other impurities, combing helps to create a more uniform and consistent product with a smoother texture and a higher luster.

Step 6: Spinning

After the wool has been carded, it’s spun into yarn.

This can be done by hand or by machine and it involves twisting the fibers together to create a strong, durable thread.

Step 7: Weaving or knitting

Once the yarn has been spun, it’s ready to be woven or knitted into fabric.

This involves using a loom or knitting needles to create a pattern of interlocking threads.

The resulting fabric can be stretched, shaped, and manipulated into a wide range of garments and other textile products.

Step 8: Finishing

Finally, the merino wool fabric is finished to give it the desired texture and appearance.

This can involve processes like dyeing, pressing, or steaming to create the final product.

What is merino wool used for?

1. Clothing: Due to its insulating properties and moisture-wicking capabilities, merino wool is usually used to make base layers and thermal underwear, socks and hosiery, sweaters, cardigans, pullovers, T-shirts and tank tops, Jackets and coats, hats, scarves, and gloves.

2. Athletic wear: Because of its natural breathability and moisture management, the wool is also used to make; running shirts and leggings, cycling jerseys and shorts, sports bras and performance underwear, athletic socks, and compression sleeves

3. Bedding and home décor: Merino wool’s warmth and breathability abilities make it ideal for making comforters and duvets, pillows and pillowcases, blankets and throws, rugs and carpets, and upholstery fabrics and drapes

4. Outdoor gear and accessories: It is also used to make sleeping bags and camping blankets, Backpacks, and duffel bags, Hats and headbands, gloves and mittens, insulated water bottles, and coffee mugs

5. Medical and industrial uses: Merino wool is also ideal for making bandages and wound dressings, surgical gowns and scrubs, fire-resistant clothing and safety gear, and insulation for buildings and appliances. 

The sustainability of merino wool

Merino wool is often considered a sustainable material due to a variety of factors. These are;

  • It’s produced naturally

Merino wool is produced through natural processes that are gentler on the environment.

This is because it comes from merino sheep that are bred for their wool and do not require synthetic inputs like pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers like other materials like cotton do. 

  • It’s biodegradable

Another factor that makes merino wool sustainable is its biodegradability.

When merino wool products reach the end of their lifecycle, they can break down naturally without causing harm to the environment.

This is important because it means that merino wool products don’t contribute to landfill waste in the same way that synthetic materials do.

  • It’s renewable

Merino wool is also a renewable resource as sheep can regrow their wool after it is shorn.

So the wool can be produced without depleting finite resources.

  • It’s durable

Merino wool is known for its durability and longevity, which means it, can last longer than other materials and reduce the need for frequent replacements.

  • It has a low carbon footprint

Another factor that makes merino wool sustainable is its low carbon footprint.

Because it is produced using natural processes and does not require as much energy for manufacturing as synthetic fibers, merino wool has a lower carbon footprint.

  • Its traceability

Many companies that produce merino wool products prioritize traceability.

This enables them to trace the source of the wool back to specific farms and ensure ethical and sustainable practices are being used throughout the supply chain.

For instance, some companies work directly with farmers to ensure they are using sustainable farming practices and treating their animals humanely.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Merino wool is a highly prized natural fiber that is derived from the fleece of the Merino sheep breed.

Its unique properties such as its fine soft fibers, natural insulating and moisture-wicking capabilities, and odor-resistance, make it a popular choice for high-end clothing and outdoor gear.

Additionally, the history and cultural significance of the Merino sheep breed add to the value and allure of wool.

With its numerous benefits, merino wool is the ideal fabric for keeping you warm, dry, and comfortable in all seasons.

So whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast looking for high-performance gear, or a fashion lover seeking a luxurious and comfortable garment, this is the fabric for you.

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