The Merino is a type of sheep known for having some of the finest and softest wool of any breed. Physically, Merinos can be recognized by their crimped fleece and distinctive facial features, along with the large, curled horns that are characteristic of many of the males. Even though most Merinos appear deceptively grey, their fleece is bright white just beneath the surface.
Merino sheep, which are one of the oldest breeds in the world, have historically been raised for the desirability of their fine wool. Wool fiber thickness is measured in microns. Merino fibers typically range from 13-25 microns and break down as follows (note that an average human hair is approximately 60 microns).
Medium Merino – 21-25 microns
Fine Merino – 17.5-21 microns
Superfine Merino – 13-17.5 microns
By comparison, wool fibers used for carpets tend to be 35-45 microns. The finer and whiter the fiber, the softer, smoother, and more versatile the wool. As a result, Merino has a variety of uses, but is most often made into apparel, with the finest fibers rivaling the luxury of cashmere.
Although Merinos are sometimes slower growing than those sheep bred for meat, their coats are nearly three times as dense. A typical Merino ewe yields approximately 3-6 kg (6.6-13.2 pounds) of wool each year. (See box for a primer on sheep terminology.)
Merino wool fibers are typically long and strong. However, as with all wool, the fibers can be weakened if the sheep is stressed while growing its fleece. Stress, which can be caused by inhumane treatment or unusually harsh environmental conditions (e.g., drought), results in thin spots in the fiber where it is likely to break during processing.
Merino sheep are an especially resilient breed, which means they can be raised in geographies that are too extreme for other domesticated breeds without becoming stressed. For example, Merinos thrive in New Zealand’s South Island high country. The natural characteristics of their wool keep them cool in the summer when temperatures climb to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and warm in the winter when they drop to -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit).
Learn more about how Merinos are raised and the key activities that characterize a year on a New Zealand farm.
Merinos require year-round attention, with the farm year punctuated by certain seasonal milestones:
Spring – Sheep are brought to lower country for shearing to relieve them of their heavy winter coats. The ewes are shorn first (before their lambs are born), followed by the hoggets, and wethers. Lambing begins.
Summer – Lambs are weaned from their mothers and drenched (given an oral medication to reduce infection by worms or other parasites). Ewes and wethers are moved to higher country.
Autumn – Ewes are brought back down to lower country for flushing (providing them with a rich diet prior to mating to positively affect their fertility). Mating occurs.
Winter – All sheep are brought to the most temperate locations at lower altitudes where feed supplements can be provided and they can be moved quickly when major storms are predicted.
Each spring, this cycle begins again with shearing. After a Merino is shorn, the wool goes to a classer, who sorts the fiber based on a visual inspection of its attributes and intended uses. It is then pressed into bales that include the wool of 30-60 sheep. The bales are moved to broker stores where fibers from each bale are tested for quality (primarily length, strength, micron, and yield).
Yield is calculated after taking into account wool grease and natural contaminants such as dirt vegetable matter. The wool is then sold through traditional commodity auctions or branded forward contracts (see the section called The Company for more information about contracts).
Before the fiber can be used to create a finished product, it must first be scoured (cleaned), carded (blended), and combed to prepare it for spinning into yarn. It can then be knitted or woven into finished fabrics and made into finished goods.
It’s All in the Teeth!
The terms used to refer to sheep at different stages of their lifecycle are based on their teeth rather than their age.
Refers to newborn male or female sheep before they cut their first two permanent teeth (typically between 10 and 18 months of age). Lamb also refers to the flesh of young sheep when it is sold as meat. Currently, as soon as a lamb cuts its first two teeth, its meat is downgraded to mutton.
A young sheep with two teeth that has not yet been shorn.
A female sheep with four or more teeth.
A male sheep with four or more teeth that has not been castrated and is used for breeding.
A male sheep with four or more teeth that has been castrated.
The productivity of sheep is also linked to their teeth. Sheep tend to be most productive between three and six years of age. Productivity tends to decline around year seven when their teeth begin to break and wear down, which makes it difficult for them to maintain their body condition. The general life expectancy of a domesticated sheep ranges from roughly 6 to 12 years; Merinos typically live for 7 to 9 years.