Log inSign Up

What is Merino Wool Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • November 25, 2020 • 8 min read

Fabric name Merino wool
Fabric also known as Spanish wool
Fabric composition Carded and spun hair fibers from Merino sheep
Fabric possible thread count variations Depends on the grade of the wool
Fabric breathability Medium
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities High
Stretchability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling High
Country where fabric was first produced Spain
Biggest exporting/producing country today Australia
Recommended washing temperatures Cold, cool, or warm
Commonly used in Sweaters, socks, shirts, base layers, hoodies, dresses, skirts, pants, suit jackets, underwear, long underwear, blankets

What is merino wool fabric?

Merino wool is one of the world’s most popular fabric materials. Derived from Merino sheep, merino wool is both inexpensive and durable, adding to its appeal. Like all types of wool, merino wool is also highly absorbent, water-resistant, and insulative, making garments made with this type of wool popular for undergarments worn under winter clothing. Depending on how it’s made, merino wool fabric can also be luxuriously soft, countering the scratchiness that is commonly associated with wool. Merino wool comes in a variety of different grades, and ultra-fine merino wool is suitable for blending with silk or cashmere.

History of merino wool

Merino sheep appeared in the southern parts of Spain sometime during the 12th or 13th century. The origins of Merino sheep are disputed; some scholars indicate that this breed of sheep was imported from Morocco, and others contend that Merino sheep originated as a result of selective breeding between Spanish sheep and Moroccan rams. What’s clear is that Merino sheep share the characteristics of both European and Arabian sheep breeds, and these sheep were obviously carefully bred to bear the finest possible fibers.

Wool production was not of significant interest during the Islamic occupation of Spain, and the first historical records of wool that is definitively merino only date back to the early 15th century. Recent genetic tests indicate that modern Merino sheep are the result of numerous crosses between Spanish churro sheep, Italian wool-bearing sheep, and even breeds of English sheep, and it is not entirely clear at which exact points in history these crosses took place. Regardless of the precise origins of Merino sheep, this domesticated, wool-bearing breed was almost single handedly responsible for making Spain a direct competitor of England within the European wool market by the end of the 15th century.

Throughout the 16th century, English wool became more commonly reserved for domestic use, and Spanish merino traders obtained a virtual monopoly over the European wool market. Every year, Spanish shepherds guided their flocks from north to south as the seasons changed, and the export of merino wool remained a significant contributor to the Spanish economy.

Until the 18th century, exporting living Merino sheep was a capital offense in Spain. In 1723, however, Spanish merchants exported a small order of Merino sheep to Sweden, and soon after, family relationships between royalty in England and Spain led to the export of a large number of Merinos to the British isles. From this point onward, exports of Merino sheep became commonplace, and this sheep species quickly became commonplace throughout most European nations.

The Australian Merino empire

The Napoleonic wars all but destroyed the Merino industry in Spain, and production of merino wool throughout the rest of Europe also suffered greatly. Just prior to the rise of Napoleon, however, savvy entrepreneurs had spread the Merino race throughout some of the most recent British colonies, including South Africa and Australia.

While the South African merino wool trade never attained any significant volume, the paltry number of Merino sheep first exported to Australia would be destined to shape the economics of the entire continent. Early attempts at Australian colonization were disastrous, but by 1810, Australia was home to more than 30,000 sheep, and these flock animals quickly proliferated throughout the sub-tropical and semi-arid populated portions of the continent.

Merino wool today

Today, Australia is home to more than 71 million sheep, and approximately 53 million of these sheep are Merino. While Merino sheep are still bred in other parts of the world, most notably in the United States, Australia is the globe’s unquestioned sheep capital. The vast majority of the world’s Merino wool originates in Australia, and the wool trade makes up a significant portion of Australia’s export economy.

Uses of merino wool have changed somewhat over the centuries. It’s less common now, for instance, to use merino wool for formal wear, and it’s much more common to use this wool for informal, insulative garments. Despite being widely available and relatively inexpensive, merino wool remains prized as one of the softest and most luxurious wool fabrics available.

How is merino wool fabric made?

The merino wool production process can be divided into a few distinct stages:

1. Shearing

Different breeds of Merino become ready to be shorn at varying rates. Some Merinos are shorn every 2-3 months, but others only become ready for shearing every six months or so. Merino sheep can produce between 3-18 kilograms of wool per year, and freshly-shorn wool is usually called “greasy” since it remains suffused with sheep skin oils.

2. Cleaning and carding

The greasy wool is then cleaned, sorted into grades, and carded into long, thin strings. These carded strings are now ready to be spun.

3. Spinning

Different grades of merino wool are spun separately, and they are then loaded onto reels in preparation for the weaving process.

4. Weaving or knitting

While most types of merino fabric feature either plain-weave or twill-weave patterns, it’s also possible to knit merino wool yarn using industrial knitting machines. For fabric designed to feature multiple colors, individual yarns are dyed prior to the weaving or knitting process.

5. Dyeing and post-treatment

If merino fabric will only feature one color, it is sometimes dyed after yarn has been woven or knit into a fabric. Rarely, merino wool may also be exposed to water-proofing or other chemical treatments. Since merino wool is naturally flame-retardant, however, it is rare for this type of fabric to be chemically treated.

How is merino wool fabric used?

Textile manufacturers generally use merino wool to make apparel, and this fabric has limited applications in homewares.

Uses in apparel

The most popular application of merino wool is in sweaters. Since types of merino wool made with fine fibers are just as soft or even softer than cotton, this material is ideal for lightweight sweaters worn directly against the skin. It’s also possible to find shirts, blouses, and even tank tops made with merino wool.

In most cases, rougher forms of wool are used for this purpose, but it’s also possible to use merino wool to make blazers. Due to its durability, softness, and heat retention, merino wool is ideal for long underwear or base layers. It’s essentially possible to make any type of insulative clothing using merino wool, but this type of fabric is usually reserved for casual apparel or sportswear and is not commonly used in formal or dressy garments.

Uses in homewares

Merino wool is commonly used to make blankets. Used as a midlayer between sheets and comforters, merino wool has impressive insulative properties. Merino wool is also a popular material for throw blankets due to its luxurious softness and remarkable heat retention.

Where is merino wool fabric produced?

At nearly 350 million kilograms of wool produced per year, Australia is the world’s foremost exporter of merino wool. This nation is home to the largest population of merino sheep by far, and wool-making is an integral part of the rural Australian way of life. Reasonably large quantities of merino wool are also produced in the United States and South Africa.

How much does merino wool fabric cost?

Merino wool is generally one of the least expensive types of wool fabric despite its luxurious softness. Due to the massive breeding of Merino sheep in Australia, supply of merino wool has no trouble keeping up with demand, driving the pricing of this fabric lower. Most grades of merino are cheaper than cashmere, mohair, or other soft types of wool, and in some cases, this abundant type of wool can be nearly as inexpensive as cotton. High-grade or organic types of merino wool are the most expensive.

What different types of merino wool fabric are there

Merino wool is sorted into grades. The smaller the micron width of the merino wool fibers used to make fabric, the higher the grade. Here are a few examples of common merino wool grades:

1. Broad merino wool (23-24.5 microns

Also called strong merino wool, broad merino wool is the coarsest yet also the most durable type of merino fabric. Usually reserved for outerwear and other textile applications that do not make contact with the skin, broad merino wool is not suitable for blending with finer materials like cotton or silk.

2. Medium merino wool (19.6–22.9 microns)

Medium merino wool is sometimes suitable for apparel worn next to the skin, but this type of wool is more commonly reserved for blazers, blankets, and other applications in which a certain degree of roughness is admissible.

3. Fine merino wool (18.6–19.5 microns)

Most merino garments on the market are made with fine merino wool. While not very expensive, fine merino wool is nevertheless nearly as luxurious as cashmere or angora wool.

4. Superfine merino wool (15–18.5 microns)

At this grade, merino wool begins to compete with cashmere and other impressively fine types of wool. It’s only possible to produce superfine merino wool in small quantities, increasing the price of this wool grade.

5. Ultrafine merino wool (11.5–15 μm microns)

As the most rare and luxurious type of merino wool, ultrafine merino fetches high prices. This grade of merino wool is on par with cashmere, angora, and other coveted types of super-soft wool.

How does merino wool fabric impact the environment?

Merino wool is generally considered to be one of the least environmentally impactful textile products. The production of merino wool does not involve any artificial pesticides, fertilizers, or agrochemicals, and the majority of merino production occurs in areas where sheep can graze naturally without permanently harming local ecosystems. Merino wool is naturally biodegradable, and it does not contribute to plastic pollution. Furthermore, it is not necessary to subject merino fabric to flame retardants or other post-treatments that may involve harmful chemicals.

The main negative environmental impact of merino wool production is soil erosion. If Merino sheep are not pastured properly, they can harm surrounding plants and soil, effectively rendering large swaths of land barren and infertile. It’s easy to counter for this potential environmental harm by simply breeding Merino sheep using sustainable methods.

On the ethical side of things, it’s unfortunately common for breeders to subject Merino sheep to animal cruelty. Animal rights activists have brought special attention to a practice called mulesing, which involves the removal of skin around the anus and gonads of sheep to prevent a type of fatal, agonizingly painful parasitic infection called flystrike.

Once the skin grows back, sheep become much less susceptible to flystrike, supposedly justifying this common preventive practice. Even if they are subjected to mulesing early in life, however, Australian Merinos and Merino sheep in other parts of the world are usually allowed to graze peacefully with occasional, gentle shearings.

Merino wool fabric certifications available

Woolmark is the primary entity that certifies merino wool. Also a popular wool brand, Woolmark only certifies wool products that were made using sustainable and cruelty-free methods. Merino wool may be eligible for USDA or European Commission organic certification if it is produced in the USA or EU, and producers of organic merino wool products can apply for OEKO-TEX or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification regardless of where they’re located around the globe.

Share

About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.