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What is Merino Wool?

By Mandi R. Hall
Updated May 21, 2024
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Merino wool is the material shorn from Merino sheep. These sheep are sought after for their coats, which are said to produce the finest, softest wool available. This wool is often used for athletic garments, as it breathes and wicks better than most synthetic fabrics. It comes in different grades that are based on the strain of sheep and its associated climate setting.

There are two types of Merino sheep: horned rams and Poll Merinos. Poll Merinos have small stubs, or scurs, if they have any horns at all. Merino rams have long, spiraled horns. There are also many strains of these sheep, which depend on the area in which they are raised, but the four basic are Peppin, South Australian, Saxon, and Spanish.

Merinos are extremely adaptable to variable temperatures, so they can be found in many areas of the world. Even though Australia is the leading producer of Merino wool, New Zealand produces the highest quality of this soft wool, which is softer and more finely crimped than other wools. There are five basic grades: strong, medium, fine, super fine and ultra fine. The wool is measured by micrometers — the lower the measurement, the finer the fiber.

Fabric made from Merino wool is often used in the production of high-end outdoor aerobic clothing, and contrary to popular belief, it is neither itchy nor overly hot. It does provide some warmth, though one of its renowned elements is its wicking abilities — it draws sweat away from the skin and retains the moisture, though the clothing still feels dry to the touch. The athlete is then able to avoid hypothermia while wearing wool, as opposed to another material, such as cotton.

Due to its uniquely thin fibers, this type of wool does not retain odors — bacteria cannot find a solid surface to grow on, making it anti-microbial, as well. It also is hypoallergenic, as is most wool. The fabric will shrink when washed or dried, but not much more than would a similar cotton garment, and it can often easily be stretched back to its original shape.

Merino wool can also be blended with possum fur or polyester, as well as cashmere and silk. When combined with the latter fabrics, the ultrafine wool makes for a smooth and soft garment. Popular garments made from this material include lightweight knits and base athletic layers, sweaters, and socks. Buyers should be sure to check the garment tag, as some wool should only be dry-cleaned or hand-washed.

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Discussion Comments
By anon330666 — On Apr 17, 2013

New Zealand does produce the best quality merino wool as well as other wool which is of course used for carpet, clothing, etc., too.

By anon316666 — On Jan 29, 2013

Just one observation: New Zealand does not produce the highest quality Merino wool - this is just excellent marketing spin. They still produce great quality garments though. Of the New Zealand sheep population, Merinos comprise only a very small proportion. NZ is actually better known in the wool industry for producing the coarser strains of wool for carpet making.

By anon313193 — On Jan 10, 2013

Merino wool is a wonderful fabric. It's perfect for babies, who can't express if they are too hot or too cold.

By anon243901 — On Jan 30, 2012

I have a 100 percent merino wool pullover. I have worn it about three times and it is pilling dreadfully, as bad as acrylic would. Why?

By EarlyForest — On Nov 01, 2010

I've heard a lot of good things about merino wool clothing, especially merino wool underwear, but I can't get my head around the idea of wearing wool so close to the skin.

Isn't wool scratchy? I can't imagine that being comfortable to wear next to the skin, even if you did blend it with silk.

And I've actually felt some of those merino wool shirts, and they don't seem to be particularly soft.

So what's with all the hype about merino wool underwear? It sounds miserable, I can't imagine ever wanting to wear something like that next to my skin!

By naturesgurl3 — On Nov 01, 2010

Merino wool is one of my absolute favorite yarns for knitting! It's so soft and smooth, and you get a nice, soft feel with merino wool yarn products that you sometimes miss out on with other wool yarns.

I actually ended up making a merino wool blanket out of a merino wool and silk yarn, and although it was pricey to buy all the yarn, the blanket is the best thing I've ever made, and it is incredibly warm.

I keep it as a throw to use when I work, since I get chilly a lot in the evenings, and I have to say that it's like being wrapped in a soft, warm cloud. So the next time you see that luxurious soft merino silk blend in the yarn store -- give in! It's totally worth it.

By yournamehere — On Nov 01, 2010

Fascinating. I had no idea that merino wool was mixed with possum hair sometimes. I usually wear a merino wool long underwear when I go hiking, so I am definitely going to have to check the tag and see if I'm actually wearing possum fur -- that would be so cool!

Oh, and if you're ever wondering about what to wear to keep you warm when camping, merino wool all the way.

I go hiking and camping a lot up in the mountains, and I always wear a merino wool base layer to keep warm. It is the smoothest, but warmest thing I've ever worn, and I would definitely recommend it for the next time you head up into the boonies -- I've worn it in -30 weather and still felt toasty, so it's a good investment.

By anon89754 — On Jun 12, 2010

it is a detailed and helpful article about wool.

-Sweta

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