The timeless appeal of merino
How did merino wool become the MVP of winter?
Words— Mylène Genty
Sweater weather is here. The temperatures of September, October and November make us beg for cozy knits. Not only do they represent the epitome of comfort, but they also allow for a multitude of styling options. When talking about knits, wool immediately comes to mind: it’s the MVP of fall-winter gear. Just like cotton, wool is an organic fabric of many facets. Its advantages are so numerous, you’ll never want to wear synthetic fibres again. Here’s everything you need to know about wool—specifically, merino wool.
Let’s start with the basics. Where does wool come from? The fabric comes from the hide of hairy animals such as sheep, goats, and rabbits. Because breeding often varies, the quality of wool that is extracted will vary from one animal to another. Things such as health, diet, country, and climate can affect the quality of their fleece. There are mainly two categories of sheep wool: lambswool and merino. Lambswool comes from various types of sheep and is always taken from the first shearing. It’s durable, flexible, and requires minimal processing. Some breed produces a fleece of such resistance, it is used for rugs and carpets.
Merino wool, on the other hand, comes from the sheep of the same name. It’s softer than lambswool, but there’s a nuance here. There are numerous types of merino, and the type will dictate the quality and price. The smaller the follicle, the gentler (and more expensive) the fabric is going to be. The diameter is measured in microns -- for reference, the human hair varies between 40 and 90 microns. On average, the diameter of a wool follicle hovers around 20 to 25 microns, and the finest merino wool, ultrafine, measures less than 15 microns.
Because of its mix of softness, durability and price accessibility, merino wool is more prized than other types of wool such as alpaca, cashmere and mohair. It’s also great at regulating body temperature, it is odour-repellent and breathable. With such properties, it’s no surprise that its cultivation spread quickly. Its origins can be traced back to 15th century Spain, where monarchs were enticed with the fine wool. It largely contributed to the economic development of the country, and by the end of the 18th century, Australian farmers were producing the merino wool we know today. Australian merino wool quickly gained the reputation of being highly resilient, subsequently being used by the military and for workwear.
Its impact on high fashion cannot be neglected: Coco Chanel designed dresses made from wool jersey in the twenties—a move that was bold considering the demand for glamorous and opulent clothing. Her pieces were on the other side of the spectrum: austere, practical and comfortable. One thing is for sure, to get approval from the masses, it helps a great deal to obtain a seal of approval from high fashion. That’s what happened with Coco Chanel in the twenties, and later with the Woolmark Prize in 1953, the fashion design competition who connected the high fashion world and the wool markets.
Over the years, our bond with wool hasn’t fainted. From the cozy sweaters to the little black dress, its timeless and soothing appeal has made it an essential fabric, especially for those living in the Nordic areas.