Updated: Oct 15, 2022
DISCLAIMER: I am sharing with the world wide web what I have learned, used and what are my preferences when creating with wool. I, in no way condone nor abhor the use of man-made material for textiles.
Some know what merino wool is and many have a favourite sweater made of merino, but it was not so long ago that us peasants were allowed the splendour of such a dignified wool. Those who made an attempt to smuggle the shorn fleece to sell in the black market or have a go at illegal exports were sentenced to death.
Throughout the centuries the different grades of merino were developed from in-breeding and cross breading. It is one of the most popular and versatile wools in the market for cloth and garments, meanwhile some crossbreeds are also raised for mutton while preserving the wool producing qualities established centuries ago.
75% of worlds merino sheep is established in Extremadura, the south western region of Spain. The other 25% of breeding is dispersed throughout Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and the United States.
Australia is currently the country following Spain in high quality production levels of merino wool.
A domestic sheep established in Spain during the Middle Ages owned by nobility and the church. Many descendants of the Hildalga, a term used in the mid twelfth century for blood lineage of non-noble families having attachments to royal privileges. Maintaining the ovis´ bloodline pure once reaching the production of the fine fleece, Hidalga has becomes its namesake and breeding practices have remained intact since. Often labelled as a pedigree wool, sought after by high-end textile companies..
Today they are one of the only few transhumance livestock to migrate across the hustle and bustle of center city Madrid on the most exclusive commercial stretch of the capital.
La Cañada Real, the original route established in 1273 by King Alfono X of Castile to protect the prized sheep from slaughter during conflict, invasions or battle. The merino, then, desired by rich and only draped the noble families of Spain, was of lucrative economic importance to the country. Protected at all cost, the Cañada Real insured its profitability for over 300 years, well into the reign of Isabella, Queen of Castile.
A Cañada Real has a width of 72.22 meters and has the characteristic of being long-distance routes, (more than 500 km), running mainly in a north-south direction with the logical limitations imposed by geography.
Although the domestic animal is known for being easy to herd and transport, they are also very adaptable to geographical and climate changes. Today the migration of flocks it is not only a celebration but a need for seasonal pastoring for the animals due to Spains extreme climate variations; up to Northern Sierras in the spring for abundant green pastures when the south is dry and hot. They then return to the south for a more temperate climate and greener fields when the north becomes damp, cold and dark. An annual tradition largely celebrated since 1994 towards the end of October.
Exports and Crossbreeding...
It was not until the 18th century under the reign of King Charles III of Spain, the export of the animals was initiated to other European countries. Mating experiments, mostly for meat during the 18th century, produced the Rambouillet Merino in France altering it's genetics through crossbreeding by the royal courts. Its development of fine fleece and a larger animal with lean meat for eating and having a distinctive characteristic, both rams and ewes have horns, made them a prize possession for the king. Once content with the genetic modification of the animal the sheep were bred exclusively for the Court of Louise the XVI at Bergerie Royale, a farm created by the king for the king, at his private residence in Rambouillet, approximately 25 miles south of Paris.
The Rambouillet Sheep was not sold nor traded until the 19th century.
Currently one of the largest Rambouillet breeding markets is in the United States.
Spanish Merino Wool...
Merino fleece is finer than human hair, softer than silk with a natural elasticity. When processed into wool the versatility is like no other I have worked with. Its adaptability allows cloth to return to its intended shape when stretched, it resists wrinkles, and drapes beautifully when worn. As fine a wool as it may be, it is also very forgiving when not cared for properly.
Merino fibres have a protective lanolin layer that naturally repels water and draws moisture away from skin. It is a natural insulator, emanating heat when body is cold with the least amount of weight or bulk within the garment.
It absorbs and evaporates moisture and it is a body temperature regulating fiber.
It is odour resistant and is a natural antibacterial fiber reducing the need for frequent washing.
Baby merino wool is hypoallergenic, proven to be highly unlikely to cause an allergic reaction to a newborn or infant. Its nonabrasive qualities and temperature regulating properties offers comfort for infants, children and adults alike. It is generally offered in superwash wool and I have a love-hate relationship with it because of the processing involved to have the wool become machine washable. I tend to sway away from it when knitting a garment or weaving cloth.
Natural Merino vs. Superwash Merino...
Natural merino is just... natural. The fleece is sheared from the sheep, sorted, washed, carded, spun and dyed. All in that order. No more.
Superwash on the other hand is a chemical process to alter the structure of the fiber, seems sacrilegious with 800 years of pure bred linage of the Spanish Merino.
Superwash is a chemical treatment based on acids to facilitate a no fuss- machine wash care for cloth. A convenience for many.
The Superwash process...
There has been a lot of "green-lighting" lately with the textile industry, Superwash woollens are no exception and they are not always environmentally sound.
Superwash is a chemical process used to strip away the natural lanolin in the wool with chlorine gas and acids. Chlorine gas was used in WWI as a chemical warfare agent. Today it is used in chlorine, disinfectants, bleach. Poison. It destroys the natural scale of the wool to then be coated with synthetic resin... (yes, plastic), to prevent it from felting when washed in a machine. It is not the prime merino wool one thinks it is, the impact on the environment is huge and not in a good way. The process takes massive amounts of water that become contaminated with the chemicals used. The characteristics of the yarn become flawed no longer being a temperature regulating material. Hypoallergenic properties- gone. The elasticity is minimal to non existing, garments become shapeless when hung to dry, and the overall feel of the garment becomes non-identical to natural merino wool.
Caring for handmade natural Merino wool garments...
It is not difficult to care for merino if one wants to have the convenience of using the washing machine:
Machine-wash on gentle cycle in warm or cool water. Avoid hot water it will felt the fabric.
Use mild soap.
NO bleach, ( chlorine gas), bleach ruins the merino fiber.
NO fabric softener, fabric softener coats the fibers, reducing their ability to naturally manage moisture and regulate body temperature.
As always, I recommend soaking and hand washing, takes a little more effort yet it ensures a lasting garment for years to come.
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