A Tale of Two Merinos
In the wool world, there is perhaps no other fiber more ubiquitous than merino. From our fiber and making community to the ready-to-wear industry, merino has become interchangeable with wool, regardless of the specific fiber content of the wool. However, beyond fabric, yarn and other textiles, Merino itself is its own breed of sheep, with a rich history dating back to 12th century Spain and distinct fleece characteristics that make our breed-specific-loving hearts sing. How is it that this one word — merino — can refer to two quite different things?
As we discussed in our Foundations installment on Breed Specificity, most commercial wool yarn manufacturers who produce yarns for both handknitting and ready-to-wear garments, focus on blending wool from different breeds of sheep into a homogenous fiber with the aim of amplifying softness.
This quality of softness is often expressed via micron count. A micron is a unit of measurement used for the diameter, and therefore fineness, of a fiber — the lower the micron count, the finer the fiber; the higher the micron count, the hardier or “coarser” the fiber.
For a finewool, commercial wool yarn manufacturers aim for an average micron range of 19–21.5 microns. In the process of blending wool from various breeds of sheep, only fibers that fall within this range are added to the blend. The resulting fiber is then a carefully calculated amalgamation of finewools from various breeds. Over time, the term merino, associated with unrivaled softness, has become an epithet for this blended (though not necessarily Merino) wool. In other words, merino used in this way references the micron count of the (blended) wool and not the breed.
What, then, sets apart Merino the breed?
Merino sheep, after having undergone centuries of breed refinement, are known for producing fleeces of remarkable fineness. However, as shown above, Merino fleeces come in a wider micron range (11–25 microns) that extends far beyond the typical commercial finewool range (19–21.5 microns). In other words, even within the Merino family, there is notable variation in softness levels from fleece to fleece, depending on the sub-breed. There are ultrafine Merino fibers at one end of the spectrum and strong, more durable Merino fibers at the other end.
There are other qualities special to Merino the breed that may be dampened in a blend that only focuses on softness. Our passion for breed-specific wool invites us to highlight all of those qualities equally and so it was exciting for us to find Merino ranchers in Nevada and Utah able to produce enough fleece to support our new core yarn — Peerie.
The fleeces we sourced average at 20.5 microns — still within the typical finewool range, but retaining the Merino-specific quirks of supreme density, high tensile strength, high crimp, and delightful springiness. Worsted-spun into a smooth, 4-ply fingering-weight yarn, Peerie hits the sweet spot of being both next-to-skin soft and durable.
Peerie arrives on May 30th — we hope you'll join us in welcoming and getting to know this newest companion on our breed-specific journey.
In writing this piece, we consulted Clara Parkes's The Knitter's Book of Wool and Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius's The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. We highly recommend these titles to those of you interested in further reading!