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Where Does Merino Wool Come From?


Origins

Sheep were domesticated long ago, with the first evidence of wool garments dating back as far as 4000 - 3000 BC. Over time sheep were selectively bred for wooly white fleece properties, rather than the shorter, coarser fleece. By 2300 - 600 BC, sheep with characteristics similar to those found today were widespread across most of western Asia. Via trade, those sheep were introduced to Europe and North Africa. Europe, in particular, pursued sheep farming to use the animal for meat, milk, and wool. By the middle ages (the 5th to 15th century), the wool trade was prevalent in Europe.

  

Merino Sheep

Starting around the 12th century, the Merino breed of sheep originated and was improved in southwestern Spain by Moors crossbreeding European sheep with those from North Africa. Due to its coveted status as being a breed with the finest and softest wool fibers, it propelled economic development in 15th and 16th century Spain. The Spanish were protective of the breed and held a monopoly during this time - for a while, selling Merino sheep outside of Spain was punishable by death! As the Spanish empire began to decline in the 17th century, the breed made its way to provinces and territories throughout Europe. The Dutch acclimated the breed to colonies it held in South Africa, and from there it made its way to Australia through trade. The breed does well in arid climates, and today the majority of Merino production in the world originates from Australia.

 

merino sheep in a field 

 

Characteristics

Merino wool is prized for being finer and softer than that of any other sheep breed. Most Merino wool production ranges from 20-23 microns, although it can range from 11.5 to 24.5 microns, depending on the particular breed strain, environment, and husbandry. A micron is a measurement of the diameter of the fiber, with a smaller number representing a finer fiber. For comparison, a human hair is typically around 100 microns. Finer Merino wool is used for apparel where the material will be in continual contact with the skin, whereas the coarsest Merino is used in items such as furniture and drapery.


Micron measurement for other fibers


Animal/Plant

Fiber measurement (Microns)

Merino Sheep

18-24

Alpaca

20-41

Angora Rabbit

14-18

Cashmere

14-19

Mohair

23-38

Yak down

15-35

Cotton

11-22

Flax Linen

12-16

Hemp

16-50

Silk

10-13


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