Merino: Softest of the Fine Wools and Spinner’s Delight

Champion Merino Sheep At The Royal Adelaide Show

I learned to spin using Merino roving. It was a drop spindle class, and I purchased my first few ounces right afterward. For the first few years, I spun exclusively Merinos. they were available in beautiful colors all ready to spin and even with my poor, nubby, beginner skills they offered soft and pretty yarns I wasn’t thoroughly embarrassed to show off.

What I didn’t now about Merino is they’ve actually become a family of sheep rather than a single breed. Originally a cross-breed of Moroccan Beni-Merines rams and Spanish Ewes, Merinos were named after the African tribe of their fathers. By the European Middle Ages, they’d been refined further and had become a favorite across much of Europe for their soft, durable, fleece. In the 1700s, royal families across Spain and the rest of Europe began giving Merino flocks to their royal relatives, spreading their popularity. They arrived in the United States in 1793 for the first time, but it wasn’t until 1809 that they established themselves on this continent.

With all that moving about, sharing of flocks, and refining in different lands, the breed standards for Merino sheep broadened. As various folk in various lands sought different characteristics for different uses of Merino fleece, new variations on the Merino arose. Today, you’ll find Merino fiber ranging in micron count from 11 to 26, which is a larger span than most other breeds enjoy. At that, though, Merinos are still the softest and most sought-after fibers, especially among knitters, crocheters, weavers, and spinners. For the most part, the fleece you find will be white because almost universally that’s what the clothing and textile industries desire. Beyond that, though, data ranges considerably. The various types fall into three broad categories: Fine, Medium, and Strong fleeces. Most of the commercially-made Merino yarns and cloths are made from strong Merino fleece; if you want the really fine stuff, you’ll need to seek it out. Even Strong Merino fibers, the 26 micron ones, are soft enough to satisfy the most sensitive baby’s skin.

If you love scouring fleece, seeking a nice one in the raw may well suit you. Roughly half the raw weight is grease, which must be removed with hot water that doesn’t cool much as you wash. Use a really good scouring agent, and be careful not to agitate the fleece at all. Merino is prone to felting. All in all, scouring Merino isn’t for beginners.

Spin Merino fiber from lock or flicking, combing, or carding. It stands up even to a drum carder, although you’ll want to use a very fine carding cloth in your drum or hand carders. Try the same carding cloth you use for cotton. Likewise, use the finest combs you can get for combing. If you want to spin a thick Merino yarn, try spinning several very thin plies rather than just a couple thicker ones. In my own experience, the experts are right when they say thicker merino plies are less sturdy and durable along with being more likely to pill. White Merino fleece takes dyes well, but it won’t have a lot of luster.

For knitting, crochet, and weaving, Merino is perfect for delicate, fine clothing, like camisoles and baby clothing. Shawls and cowls are other terrific options, as well. Merino yarns spin up lightweight and fine, but not as durable as other breeds like Corridale or Romney. If you’re planning on making a hat, for instance, Merino may not be the best choice. You’ll find Merino generally elastic and bouncy, as well.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Merino Data:

  • Staple Length: 2-5 in (5-13 cm)
  • Locks: Dense, blunt potentially weathered at the tips; heavy grease; tight, fine, well-defined crimp across fibers and locks
  • Microns: 12-25 (Average is 20-22)
  • Colors: White (blacks, grays, and moorits/browns are rare)
  • Weight: 7-40 lbs (3-8 kg) with average of 9-14 lbs (4-6 kg)

Sources and References:

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