Breed Study: Merino
Merino is one of the most well-known breeds of sheep, due to their use in fashion and commercial yarn production. They are primarily bred for their fine wool, though they can be meat sheep as well. They are medium in size, hardy, and adaptable to different climates. Due to their breeding, they have continuously growing wool that needs to be sheared regularly for their comfort and welfare.
Microns: 11.5-25 (classification system 1: strong / broad wool is 23-24.5μm, medium wool is 19.6-22.9μm, fine 18.6-19.5μm, superfine 15-18.5μm and ultrafine is 11.5-15μm)
Staple Length: 2-5 inches
Bradford Counts: 60-80 (most are 64-70s)
Fine wool with tight and well-defined crimp, excellent for spinning, dyeing, and felting. Suitable for delicate fabrics, and next-to-skin wear. Fleece is dense, and extra care is often needed to remove the heavy grease from raw fleece. Best when spun fine, as a thicker yarn will not secure the fibers and tend to pill. For thicker yarn, spin multiple thin yarns, and ply them together. (Source: The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius)
Colors: Vast majority are white, but there are some occurrences of black, gray, and moorit (brown).
Merino sheep originated in Spain between the 13th and 15th centuries when local (most likely churro ewes) were bred with Italian rams in the Roman times, North African rams in the medieval period, and later with English fine wool rams in the 15th century.
By the middle ages, the breed had been refined to the point that they were the most coveted and profitable in the European wool market, and their export to other countries was punishable by death. In the 1700’s Spanish Monarchs began giving them as gifts to other European courts, resulting in the development of new flocks across Europe and then around the world.
Merino sheep were first introduced in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. The Australian merino was derived from a variety of stocks (and there is some variation in flocks today), but ultimately developed as a genetically distinct strain compared to merino grown in other parts of the world.
Merinos were first imported to the USA around 1793 in small flocks, but the first major introduction was in 1809 when William Jarvis imported a large flock of Portuguese Merinos to Vermont, resulting in a wool boom for that area, followed by a bust in the market as competition increased from other states.
Today, Merino are flocks have been bred for a variety of different climates and purposes, resulting in a large number of different strains with different characteristics. While Merino as a breed still share certain commonalities, there is a great deal of variation by genetic strain and by region.