Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sheep of the Week: Merino

Word has it that there are over 450 breeds of sheep throughout the world, and most enthusiasts agree that the merino produces the softest wool of all, some of which rivals cashmere in its luxuriousness.  So luxurious, in fact, that the keepers of these sheep have been utterly stingy in the past.  So stingy, it’s a wonder we even have merinos 
in this part of the world.  We do have a few, but even 
now it’s difficult to find true merinos in the U.S.

Before the 18th century, King Ferdinand of Spain cornered the market on merinos, known then as Escurials. (We have a rooster named Ferdinand, a.k.a effing Ferdinand, bastard chicken from hell.  Only we don’t say “effing.”)  Anyway, remove a sheep from Spain and effing Ferdinand would have you executed.  I told you they were stingy!  He gifted a few to his cousin in Saxony, Prince Xavier, and the Saxon Merino was born.  Eventually, war came and the flock was all but annhialated.  What survived was dispersed to the four corners.  Those that made it to America were selected for meat, and their wool suffered.  Those that went to Australia were bred for their wool, and they ate something else.  So fine that someone got stingy again and it wasn’t until 1986 that the Aussies allowed sheep to be exported.  Rams only.  Good luck with that breeding program.  

Ever resourceful, ranchers in America bred those rams with well-chosen muttons, and now we do have a few farms that produce lovely merino fleeces.  Alas, none are local to Western North Carolina, but we can still hope.  (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)  Merinos have been crossed with other breeds to add softness to potentially scratchy wools, so when you find Cormo or Polwarth or Rambouillet, you’ll have a nice next-to-skin fiber to use in your spinning or knitting.

I am a huge fan of merino fiber.  One of its characteristics is loftiness.  Another is warmth.  Once spun, the yarn is puffy and bouncy, light weight, yet warm.  It does not wear hard, so it will eventually pill.  But honestly, it's worth it.  Look how pretty.

This is hand spun merino plied with bamboo in my Reed colorway.

Fun fact:  Merino sheep carry up to 10-25 pounds of fleece on their 80-175 pound bodies.  I bet they’re frisky on shearing day.

Another fun fact (and probably TMI):  Did you know that you can buy merino undies?  Wool panties.  Sounds awful, but, again, I am a huge fan.  Every try to pull up a pair of sweaty wet cotton panties (after peeing in the woods) when you're backpacking up a mountain on a 90 degree day.  Wool panties will change your hiking life.  Trust me.

Effing Ferdinand...Bastard Chicken from Hell


  1. Merino is soft, warm wool but I'm still waiting for a post on the adorable little Shetland sheep which also produce very soft, fine wool. Ferdinand the tyrant ... :)