Breed Spotlight - Merino
Welcome to a new project from Unwound! Breed-specific wool is getting more and more popular these days, and for good reason. But if you've ever been left wondering why you might choose a yarn that said "Corriedale" instead of one that said "Merino," you are not alone! This series aims to examine different breeds of sheep, look at use cases for different types of wool, and weigh the pros and cons of each breed. There are so many breeds of sheep out there and their wool all has different characteristics that make them excel at certain tasks. We'd love to share with you our love of each breed and talk about why you might want to use yarn from one breed over another for your next project.
If we're to start at the top, we've gotta go with the big boy Merino first.
You know it. You love it. Merino wool is everywhere for a good reason. Its silky smooth texture and natural softness make it a no-brainer choice for everyone's go-to yarn and spinning fiber. Merino is so ubiquitous, it's almost as if it the default setting.
Merino sheep have their roots in Spain. They were originally a cross breed between Spanish ewes and Moroccan rams. The breed was further refined and bred for wool during the Middle Ages, which helped Spain corner the market on wool throughout Europe - going so far as to ban the export of the sheep so that they could maintain control of the stock. Eventually the control on the breed relaxed, and in 1793, the first animals were exported to North America where its popularity spread further. Since then, the breed has become popular world-wide and the animals are grown everywhere, with an especially large population in New Zealand.
You'll find many yarns in our shop that list Merino as their main fiber content. These yarns are incredibly soft (typical Merino yarns are between 20-25 microns, though this can vary widely between animals and flocks). This is even more true if the wool has been "superwashed," which is a chemical treatment that prevents the wool from felting (think of it like getting a perm for your hair, except the wool has been treated to stay straight instead of curl). Superwash wools are even more soft and smooth than their non-superwash counterparts, which really plays up the strengths of Merino. These yarns are fine enough to use for baby garments and are wearable by many people with wool-sensitivities.
If the Merino yarn or fiber in question is not superwash, be extra careful - it tends to felt easily. Treat Merino yarn with care - lukewarm water, gentle soap, and no agitation are key to washing. If you happened to get your hands on some raw Merino fiber that is still greasy, wash it with super hot water and soap, but do not agitate it. Take it out of the water while it is still very hot - this will ensure the grease stays in the water.
- Takes dye well, resulting in bright, clear colors
- Excellent drape, great for shawls
- Creates a lightweight, delicate fabric
- Very soft, smooth texture
- High luster, depending on how the yarn is spun
- Felts easily (this can be a strength, depending on the project, of course!)
- Prone to pilling, making it a poor choice for garments or socks unless paired with a sturdier fiber (many sock yarns are 75% superwash Merino, 25% nylon)
- Smooth texture doesn't lend itself to traditional colorwork
- Poor stitch definition, depending on how the yarn is spun
There is a lot of variation within the Merino breed (there are even other sub-breeds of Merinos!) so consider this a very general guide about what tends to be true about Merino wool. The micron count can go as low as 11 for the finest animals and all the way up to the upper 20's for the more coarse flocks. But you can rely on any Merino yarn to be wonderfully soft, and an excellent choice for your next shawl, cowl, or scarf. It's a wool made for cuddling!
The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius