Faces of Wool: Merino Sheep, Part II
Welcome back to the Faces of Wool series! In the last post, I introduced you to Merino sheep, which have a prestigious heritage. Here in part 2, we’ll dive into merino fiber itself and explore what makes it so special—and so valuable to crafters.
Merino fleece is denser than fleeces from other breeds because Merinos have more hair follicles per square inch of skin. There are even Merino strains that have been bred for extra wrinkly skin, which increases their overall surface area and thus the amount of fleece on each animal.
Merino fiber has a staple length of between 2-5 inches. It ranges from 11.5-22 microns in diameter. Staple length helps determine whether the wool will be used in knitting or weaving; longer wools are typically turned into yarn.1 Diameter determines fineness, which in turn determines use; for example, extrafine fibers are used for making suits, while coarser fibers are used for making socks. Wool under 17.70 microns in diameter is considered fine, and most merino wool falls under this category.2
Merinos, which have been bred specifically for their wool, need to be sheared. If they aren’t, their fleeces will just keep growing, which can endanger them. You’ve probably seen photos of sheep found in New Zealand and Australia with crazy huge fleeces—Merinos with these “mega-fleeces” pop up every once in a while. These sheep typically have been separated from their herd somehow and haven’t been sheared in many years.
Although the photos are kinda funny (I’ll admit I chuckled the first time I saw a picture of Shrek, the New Zealand sheep with the giant fleece), the poor sheep are suffering under all that wool. Merinos can develop serious medical problems if their fleeces get overgrown, so it’s important for them to be sheared annually.
Fleece weight varies from strain to strain. The smallest Merinos have fleeces that weigh between 6-13 pounds per year, whereas animals in the largest strains can have fleeces that weigh up to 40 pounds.3
Coming up in part 3, we’ll wrap up our discussion of Merino sheep before moving on to the next exciting breed. But until then, I’m curious: what do you knit with merino wool? Do you use it for garments, accessories, or both? Or do you prefer other types of fiber for your handknits? Let me know in the comments—and let me know what breeds you want me to cover in this series!
Put your best fiber forward,
1. “Wool Characteristics: Length,” Australian Wool Innovation Limited, https://www.wool.com/market-intelligence/woolcheque/wool-characteristics/length/.
2. Kott, Rodney, “Wool Grading,” MontGuide, reprinted July 1993, http://msuextension.org/publications/AgandNaturalResources/MT198380AG.pdf.
3. “Merino,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merino#History