Curious about what Merino wool actually is and why it’s so popular? This guide will explain!
Not all cloth is created equal. The creation of some of the most valuable textiles have been carefully molded over the centuries.
Merino wool is one such material. Like a vineyard on the cliffside of a french chateau or a stable of racing stallions, so too has merino wool been masterfully engineered and refined by a multigenerational process.
This article will explore the rich history of this storied fabric. What makes this wool so distinct? Is it still desirable today? How does it feel to wear and maintain clothes made of Merino wool?
The Legacy of Merino Wool
Let’s use our imagination for a moment. It’s late in the 17th century in the Iberian Peninsula.
You, a struggling Basque merchant, have fallen upon hard times, and determined that the only way to escape from your crushing poverty is to turn to crime, and not the kind of crime that results in a few nights in prison if you are caught; No, what you are considering carries the death penalty.
You reach out to an important acquaintance in Castile, Spain. One who you know has the property that you need to acquire. Something only available to them. The thing that will either seal your fate, or guarantee you a long and rich life as a felon in Francia.
This clandestine, high-stakes transaction was likely a reality for merchants desiring this fabled fabric four hundred years ago. They would live a life of riches, or die a shameful death, over the exportation of sheep. But not just any sheep. Merino Sheep.
These sheep were special. They produce wool that is claimed to be softer and of higher quality than the finest English wool, making it highly sought after for centuries.
As you may have surmised from our story, Merino sheep were so prized that their exportation from Spain was a crime punishable by death.
What makes Merino sheep, and their wool, so treasured and distinct? Their legacy extends back to the Roman Age.
The forefathers of Merino sheep were created by crossbreeding Spanish churro ewes with Italian rams. Later, during the Medieval Period, their genetic line was mixed with the fine-wool rams from north Africa. Finally, their lineage was rounded out with English rams in the 15th century.
Merino Wool Today
In the 21st century, Merino wool is no longer monopolized by Spain, with more than 80% being produced by flocks in Australia and New Zealand. However, despite this sheep diaspora, it continues to be the gold standard of quality for sheep’s wool.
Arguably, modern production methods have made this wool even better than the merino wool of centuries past.
Merino wool is renowned for its superior softness and thin weave. In addition, it’s also a renewable, sustainable, and regenerative material. The production process of Merino wool feeds back into its natural ecosystems creating a net-neutral, or even net-negative, carbon footprint.
In a time when so much of our style is based around plastic and nylon, wool presents an option that feels as good on the soul as on the skin.
The earth-centric approach that producers provide for an increasingly climate-aware generation is easy to provide with Merino. Multiple brands have been built around this wool and its renewability, such as Icebreaker and Smartwool.
Both of these brands are members of the ZQRX Programme, which expands upon the efforts they make to create products ethically and sustainably, and guarantee peace of mind.
Wearing and Using Merino Wool
What are the defining qualities of modern Merino wool? Simply put, it’s soft, smooth, and satisfying.
It’s true that when most people think of wool, they think of itchiness. This is not the case with Merino, which is actually perfectly suited for skin-contact garments and layering.
Unlike normal wool, Merino is made up of incredibly fine fibers which contribute greatly to its signature softness. Merino wool is an ideal comfort fabric.
As you can see, just compared to traditional wool, Merino is already more fine and smooth. The size of Merino fibers approaches that of Alpaca wool, which is often considered the highest standard of quality for natural fibers. Why choose Merino over Alpaca?
Merino wool is much easier to source ethically and sustainably, while also costing roughly half as much as Alpaca. A barely perceptible change in fiber width, for many, is not worth the extra cost of Alpaca compared to Merino wool.
The Science Behind Merino Wool
The hairs of Merino wool provide a natural antimicrobial, in the form of lanolin, that keeps bacteria and mold from growing in the fabric, and deters dust mites, meaning that it will stay smelling fresh and clean longer and better than other fibers, like cotton, and is a great option for those with allergy sensitivities.
The smaller fibers of Merino provide a softer touch, yes, but they also provide a greater amount of surface area, which is where the science behind the weaves comes into play.
Wool functions as a temperature regulator, keeping you cool in the heat and warm in the cold. How?
Woolen fibers create a natural waxy coating called the epicuticle. This waxy substrate actually facilitates a chemical reaction when they get wet, breaking down the chemical bonds of water.
The exothermic reaction to water actually generates some heat, which means that when the wool gets wet, it stays warm!
This same waxy coating and chemical reaction also helps in the heat. The epicuticle coating acts as a wicking mechanism when exposed to small amounts of moisture (such as sweat). This draws the moisture away from the skin and keeps the wearer nice and cool.
The final temperature regulatory feature of fibers such as Merino wool are their naturally occurring crimps in the fabric. These irregularities create air pockets throughout the material.
These crimps, combined with the waxy epicuticle, create an effect called hygroscopic insulation. This insulative quality creates a thermal blockade against the elements, even in environments of high moisture.
The Bottom Line of Merino Wool Science
Merino wool keeps you cool in the summer, warm in the winter, wicks sweat away, and resists smells and bacteria. Oh, and the natural crimping I mentioned? It also means that wool doesn’t wrinkle easily. Instead it has an incredibly satisfying, natural stretch that forms to the wearer over time. Heavenly.
The Downsides of the Merino Miracle
It’s all too perfect, isn’t it? Sadly, that isn’t the case. There are real downsides to the material that we’ll cover next, though whether they’re enough to dissuade you is a personal matter. Merino wool is not the end-all of fiber products. There will always be aspects of preference and utility to be considered.
First of all, while less expensive than Alpaca, Merino wool is still expensive. Polyester and cotton, despite their faults, have an alluring price point when compared to wool. It’s important to note that extra cost doesn’t necessarily mean the fabric will last longer, either.
The softness and fine threads of Merino wool also come at the cost of durability. Your fine Merino wool purchase might wear out long before your favorite cotton shirts.
This can be a dealbreaker for those on a tight budget. There’s no shame in mindfully purchasing less expensive and more durable clothing.
Another downside of Merino wool is the difficulty of drying the fabric. The same science that enables temperature regulation and moisture wicking makes this material a pain to dry after a thorough soaking. The waxy epicuticle and the microscopic air pockets retain water once absorbed.
This means that wool, on average, needs about 15 minutes longer to dry than other fabrics. Depending on your method of drying your clothes, that can become frustrating, especially when you’re in a hurry.
The last two negatives of Merino wool go hand-in-hand. They both relate to the overall feel and texture of the material.
The texture of Merino wool is incredibly supple, but it isn’t the same as cotton. If you’re like me, that’s actually wonderful. It feels like the perfect blend of cotton plush and polyester slide. But it can be the wrong texture for some people, just like how some people can’t stand long socks.
There’s nothing wrong with it inherently, but it means that you should probably try out a single Merino wool clothing item before investing heavily in your wardrobe.
The texture, moisture wicking, and weave of the wool that we’ve been lauding also limits the dyes and patterns of the fabric. Those that prefer to go beyond earth tones and classic stitching might have difficulty finding a Merino match to march with their own personal drummer.
Of course, some brands try to stand out in this regard, such as Icebreaker, but if bright colors are especially important to you, you may have to spend some time on the hunt for a real Merino wool standout.
The Sum of All Merino:
And that’s about it! For everyone looking for the quick answers guide, the following is a brief summary of all the things we’ve just explored:
Pros of Merino wool:
- Temperature Regulating
- Moisture Wicking
- Naturally Hypoallergenic
- Wrinkle Proof
Cons of Merino wool:
- Mid-tier Expensive
- Middling Durability
- Texture isn’t for Everyone
- Needs Extra Drying Time
- Not Terribly Versatile in Style
Hopefully this guide has been helpful, interesting, and informative. Did you enjoy the deep dive into the legacy and science behind this legendary material?
I’m happy to say, you can safely purchase your next Marino shirt import without risking life and limb like the importers of old.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below!