Buying a shirt or a jacket can feel like opening a Russian nesting doll of branding. Not only are articles of clothing branded, but so is every stitch, textile, fabric, and zipper. We go on about Toray 3DeFX™ spiral insulation, YKK zippers, and C6 DWR treated Karuishi® fleece. Don’t misunderstand, these new textiles are amazing—just a couple generations ago your outdoor gear material choices were canvas, oilcloth, or wool—and yet our cynical side can’t help but see marketing fluff. This is especially true because, in the case of insulation, we actually are marketing fluff.
People have been marketing fluff longer than you might imagine, but what do you really know about Merino? Do you have any idea what makes Merino different from other wool? Do you how know it became the Ring of Power in the textile market, the OG branded fabric that’s still demanding attention 500 years later? Books have been written about the history of Merino*, but since we know you don’t have time for all that, we’ll give you a super-abridged version.
Merino Vs Other Wool
Merino wool has three properties that set it apart from other wool. First, the length of its fibers. Whereas most sheep have short, coarse coats, Merino sheep grow long, luxurious locks.
Merino Sheep Starring in an Early Pantene Commercial
Second, the shape: Those voluminous hairdos have a natural crimp that would make every 80s popstar drool with envy.
Third, the diameter: Merino wool fibers are roughly half the diameter of wool from other kinds of sheep. Thicker wool feels coarse against your skin. People who find wool itchy haven’t been wearing Merino, they’ve been wearing garments made from thicker, coarser wool.
Taken together, these three properties give Merino superpowers:
Temperature Regulation—Merino wool both insulates and breathes, allowing Merino sheep to thrive in climates where the temperatures swing from 5 degrees to 95 degrees. Quality clothing made from that wool does the same thing for your skin. Merino continues to retain heat and insulate even when wet, so if you get a little sweaty hiking into your favorite backcountry fishing spot on a cold morning, you won’t freeze when your body temperature drops.
Moisture Wicking—To the previous point, Merino can hold lots of water. When wet, the fibers suck the moisture into their core. That core can absorb 35% of its own weight in water, leaving the outer layers (the parts that touch your skin) relatively dry.
Smart People Say This Explains Merino’s Water Absorption Properties
Less Funk in Your Trunk—Merino wool resists odor. Ever hang out around sheep? They’re nasty. The term dingleberry might have been invented for sheep. And yet, they don’t stink nearly as much as you would expect them to, certainly not as much as cattle or pigs. We’re not saying sheep are odor free (far from it), but if wool can resist that kind of stank, it can certainly stand up to your natural oils on a three-day fishing trip.
Durability—Sheep are hardy buggers, and so are their coats. Quality Merino clothing that’s reasonably well cared for will last far longer than cotton and synthetic materials with less pilling over time.
Super Softness—This is what really sets Merino apart from other wool. Just about all wool garments have the properties described above, but Merino gives you all of that in extremely soft, comfortable clothing. There’s a reason that most people who try Merino underwear never subject their nethers to anything else ever again.
“Merino — the aristocrat of sheep. They’ll survive for six weeks buried in snow at seven or eight thousand feet. Big wrinkled grey bundles of the finest wool on earth, grown on some of the most challenging farming country in the world.”
— Barry Crump New Zealand’s foremost outdoor writer and Merino aficionado
History of Merino
Merino was developed in Spain during the 15th Century through the selective breeding of native Spanish ewes with Roman, North African, and English Rams. Over two centuries, Spanish herders produced better and better wool, and by the late 16th Century, Merino overtook English wool at the top of the sheep heap.
For the next 200 years, Spain kept a tight grip on Merino. Exporting Merino sheep was a crime punishable by death until the Napoleonic Wars decimated much of the Spanish infrastructure. Merino sheep then spread throughout Europe and around the globe (cause, you know, Colonialism).
Merino sheep first arrived in Australia thanks to a guy named John Macarthur. His claim to fame (wool pioneer, did you click the link?) really fails to capture the totality of his story. Macarthur served as a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps, the part of the British Navy that established and maintained their convict and slave colony in Australia. On his way to pioneering modern Merino, he survived a ridiculous number of duels, became an influential member of the ‘Rum Corps’, amassed a fortune through extortion and racketeering, spearheaded a military coup called the Rum Revolution (see the theme?), used his personal connections with a couple of Dukes to avoid a mutiny charge in England, and then settled down to start a nice little sheep farm back in Oz.
From there, Merino sheep spread across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, where sheep farming remains core to Kiwi cultural identity. Most of the Merino you buy today is produced in either Australia or New Zealand.
The Thermo Collection
We were happy to jump on that five-century bandwagon when we created our Thermo Collection, a line of insulating layers made from the finest Merino wool. Though we’re not afraid to embrace modern textiles or technology, we think this Merino thing really has legs (get it?). Our Thermo collection will keep you warm, dry, and comfortable in just about any conditions. Plus, the longevity of its branding makes life easier for our marketing department.
Embrace progress, but don’t shun the classics. We’ve got Perdigons, Sex Dungeons, and Chubbies in our boxes, but we also have plenty of Hare’s Ears, Wooly Buggers, and Parachute Adams.
*Actually, our intern couldn’t find any books written about the history of Merino wool, but that history is interesting enough to merit a book, or at least a REALLY long Wikipedia page. To be fair, he didn’t look that hard.