Merino is a type of wool that comes specifically from a merino sheep. The merino sheep breed came originally from Spain but was domesticated and bred on a commercial scale in New Zealand and Australia, with Australia still producing around 80% of the worlds merino today. The merino sheep thrives in hostile conditions where other breeds would perish, meaning that they have developed a high quality wool coat to protect from hot summers, freezing winters and everything in between. From the merino, the fine wool fibres allow these sheep huge amounts of insulation at relatively low weights and this has transferred seamlessly across into the textiles industry.
A quality merino sheep can produce up to 18kg of wool each year and the sheep do need to be shorn annually to stop the wool from growing and prevent them from suffering from heat stress, mobility issues and other health related problems. Unlike down, there is no ethical merino standard for the production and sourcing of the wool so a number of issues have been highlighted across the years but most outdoor brands are conscious of this and a number of different approaches have been taken to promote animal and ecological friendly approaches.
There are a range of benefits to merino, some of which are briefly highlighted below;
Merino wool is easily compared to other wool fibres as being thinner and smoother but even within this there is variation. Fibre sizes are measure the diameter of the wool fibre in microns (µm). Wool diameters can range from as much as 36-40 microns (µm) on Cotswold sheep down to around 18-24 (µm) on Merino, all compared to human hair with is around 40 (µm). However, the merino classification can be broken down further, with strong wool (23–24.5 µm), medium wool (19.6–22.9 µm), fine (18.6–19.5 µm), superfine (15–18.5 µm) and ultra fine(under 15 µm). Due to these fine fibres, much more wool (approximately 4 times more fibre per square inch) is needed to produce a garment of equivalent weight to using other conventional wools.
The reason wool was traditionally used in outdoor clothing was simple, warmth, even when wet. Wool, in general, is a high insulating material that works a similar way to down, which is created from high lofting tendril feathers from birds and fowl. The smaller fibres in merino allow air to be held in pockets. These air pockets act as a barrier and prevent loss of body heat to the surrounding cold air providing warmth and insulation perfect for use next to the skin, particularly as a baselayer.
Different companies obviously use merino in different ways. Two of our biggest merino producing brands are Rab and Montane.
A number of brands produce merino baselayers, hats, gloves and various other items which reinforce the importance placed on merino as a high performing outdoor material.