The fascinating story behind Merino Wool

April 18, 2018

Merino Sheep

Merino wool is world renowned for its quality, and has been for centuries. It’s softer, warmer and lighter than other wool, and it is these qualities which have made it the centre of a fascinating history stretching back over 500 years.

The Merino sheep

The Merino breed is known for having the softest wool of any sheep. Over the centuries, they have been bred to produce finer and finer wool, resulting in what we see today.

Merino sheep are a tough, resilient bunch, and can survive in geographies and climates in which other sheep can not. They can be found thriving in the freezing highlands of the South Island, or in the sweltering heat of the Australian Outback.

Predominantly bred for their wool, Merino tend to be smaller than other sheep which are bred for meat, although their coats are nearly three times as thick. You can see this extra wool in their appearance; their crumpled fleece makes them look like they are wearing a jumper that’s a few sizes too big!

The history of Merino

Although famous in Australia and New Zealand, the Merino sheep has its beginnings in Spain.

Historians believe that the flocks which laid the foundation of the Merino arrived in Spain sometime before the 13th Century, brought into the country by the Berbers, a North African tribe.

For the next 400 years, Spain dominated the fine wool industry, exporting to the rest of Europe. This monopoly brought in so much money that until the 18th Century, taking a merino sheep out of the country was punishable by death!

The Napoleonic Wars ended Spain’s monopoly on the fine wool industry. Other countries began to import the sheep to start their own breeding programs, with the Dutch Government sending a flock to South Africa.

It was from a flock in South Africa that John MacArthur first took Merinos to Australia in 1788.

From the initial 70 sheep that survived the voyage, only 28 remained a few months later. As more settlers arrived over the years, they added to the flocks, and by 1810, a mere 22 years later, Australia had 34,000 sheep.

20 years after that, the number was over 2 million.

This is why today, John MacArthur is known as the father of the Australian Merino industry.

New Zealand Sheep

Merino in New Zealand

The Reverend Samuel Marsden is credited with bringing the first sheep to New Zealand in 1814.

Over the next 50 years, thousands of sheep were transported across the Tasman, but they were not always of the best quality, with Australian farmers understandably wanting to keep hold of their best.

To make up the difference in quality, New Zealand breeders began importing small numbers from Germany, France, America and the UK.  With this branching of genetics, the New Zealand Merino quickly became its own distinct type of wool, which is now arguably the best in the world.

Why Merino is so good

Merino’s secret lies in its size.

The thinner wool is, the softer, lighter and more versatile it is. Merino wool is some of the thinnest out there, with Superfine Merino only a quarter the width of a human hair!

This unique thinness makes Merino wool exceptionally soft, as the long, fine fibres can bend more than traditional wool. They are also so fine they don’t itch, and the highest-grade merino wool is comparable to cashmere.

Unlike cashmere though, Merino can be thrown into a washing machine. Merino wool is as tough as the sheep it came from, and can be bent 20,000 times before breaking. By comparison, cotton fibre will break after approximately 3,000 times.

Being a natural material, wool is an active fibre which reacts to changes in temperature. The same process which allows sheep to live in the outback or at the top of a mountain keeps you cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool.

But Merino really shines when it comes into contact with water.

The inner core of Merino fibre can absorb 35% of its own weight in moisture. Not until wool is saturated with 60% of its own weight will it feel wet to the touch. Water droplets on the surface of Merino will bead and roll off instead of being absorbed into the fabric. This also makes it stain resistant and allows sweat to evaporate, thus diminishing odour.

Possum Merino Mens Clothing

Only the very best Merino wool

From a small start-up to a thriving fashion label, McDonalds Textiles have been producing the very best in Merino clothing for three generations.

We carefully source the finest materials and treat every stitch with the respect it deserves.

Our Merino wool is born and bred in the high country regions of New Zealand, and has a world-leading reputation for being gentle, strong and resilient.

We offer luxury through exceptional craftsmanship and unwavering diligence.

This is where fashion and function meet in perfect harmony.

Discover the perfect gift for men or women, or contact us if you have any questions about our products.

Our friendly and experienced staff will be happy to help in any way they can.