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MERINO WOOL:
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

Merino sheep wool is a soft, breathable, resistant material with excellent thermoregulatory characteristics. Moreover, its environmental impact is very low and its production can be fully ethical if animal welfare criteria are taken into account. We bring you some information that you will want to take into consideration when purchasing your next shirt or sweater.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza

12/05/2021

Origins

Think of a soft, comfortable, biodegradable textile material that is pleasant on your skin, eliminates your sweat quickly and is easy to care for, so it will last for years. Can you think of any? If not, don’t worry, we have the answer: merino wool. The finest sheep wool is a versatile material with incredible technical features that will make you love itif you don’t already.

The exact origin of Merino sheep is not entirely clear, and many experts place it in North Africa, in present-day Morocco. What is out of the question is that the material we know as merino wool appeared for the first time in the Iberian Peninsula in the late Middle Ages, thanks to the selective breeding of Iberian and North African sheep. For 300 years, Spain was its sole producer, and this high-quality material was the cause of its near-monopoly of the wool trade in Europe until the 18th century. 

Barely a century later, the proliferation of this sheep breed in British Australia began to grow rapidly and shaped the economy of this southern hemisphere country, making it the world’s leading producer. Other major merino wool producers are China, New Zealand and the United States. In total, there are about 100 countries that export this fabric, Sydney and Brisbane in Australia being the main trading centers.

Merino wool is praised for its outstanding performance compared to other fibers, whether artificial or synthetic. It is a textile material that offers very good thermal insulation while being breathable, which is very useful for activewear and outdoor sports activities. Woolen garments absorb your sweat and release it quickly in the air, greatly reducing body odor and thus offering a great advantage over fibers that do repel sweat, such as polyester.

At the same time, buying wool garments is much more sustainable than consuming other types of fabrics. First of all, it is a natural and biodegradable fiber, the disposal of which does not lead to the release of microplastics into the ocean. In addition, merino wool clothing is comfortable and very resistant, allowing it to be used for longer and greatly reducing its carbon footprint.

Finally, merino sheep herding can be beneficial for the land on which they graze, as long as the intensive use of the same pastures is avoided and the herds are moved from one paddock to another during the year. This kind of grazing, called “holistic management” or “adaptive grazing”, allows the grasslands to be cyclically fertilized and the land to rest before being used again.

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Of course, not all are advantages, and it is important to take into account the specific conditions in which the garments we are buying have been produced. The demand for more wool products can be linked to deforestation of large wooded areas, as well as overgrazing and overuse of water resources in the regions where the wool comes from. In addition, the living conditions and the treatment given to sheep is also the source of many people’s concerns when it comes to consuming clothing made with animal fabrics.

Ethical Wool 

The main reason for complaint by animal rights organizations is the technique known as “mulesing”, by means of which the woolly skin near the buttocks of the sheep is removed. This procedure, widespread in Australia and carried out to prevent flies from laying eggs in the skin folds under the sheep’s tail, causes the animals great pain. Some other top producing countries, like New Zealand, have already forbidden mulesing sheep, but there is still no global regulation in this regard.

Therefore, certain considerations must always be kept in mind in order to consume responsibly. For instance, when purchasing your next outdoor activewear or your next sweater, you should look for merino wool garments with ethical certifications such as the ZQ Merino Standard, the Certified Organic Wool label or the Responsible Wool Standard, as well as brands that ensure the use of mulesing-free wool, such as Patagonia, Finisterre, NewMerino and Fjällräven. Another option is to buy second-hand garments or from recycled wool, something that always carries a lower environmental impact than buying new clothes.