What does ‘Merino’ really mean?
I’ll bet lots of you already know; but if you’re like me, you might have known that there is Italian and Australian and Spanish ‘merino’ wool – and that it’s a ‘high-quality’ wool – but still be clueless about what makes this breed of sheep special. I was reading a blog post over at The Wool Box this week and found some great information about Merino which inspired me to do a little extra research on my own and to place Mohair and BFL in context with Merino’s different grades.
First of all, I learned that ‘merino’ is a breed category that encompasses several different types of sheep, some bred for meat and carpet-grade wool, some for ‘strong’ or ‘broad’ wool (23–24.5 microns) and yet others for fine, high-quality clothing wool.
Here’s a translation of what The Wool Box had to say about different diameters of Merino wool:
“Often, all ‘Merino Wool’ is grouped together as if it were one quality; this keeps us from understanding how one type is different from another and how each quality is suited to a specific purpose. Anyone who is interested in how these fibers are classified can just glance at the table below:
Merino = any wool from any breed of Merino sheep.
Fine Merino = fiber diameter from about 19.5 to 21.0 microns.
Super Fine Merino = fiber diameter from about 17.5 to 19.5 microns.
Extra Fine Merino = fiber diameter of less than 17.5 microns.
With this information, spinners, knitters, and other fiber artists can find their way through the ‘merino’ labyrinth without running the risk of settling for less than exactly the right material for the project at hand.”
It helps me to remember that some of the finest grades come from the younger animals so, super fine ‘baby’ wool for making ‘baby’ knits that go closest to your skin! Meanwhile, the thicker, more twisted, and longer the fiber, the longer it will wear. These not-quite-so-soft fibers are best for cardigans, pullovers, scarves and hats that get a real work-out – with the added benefit of (often) having higher stitch definition and less pilling*.
I saw that in addition to these 3 grades of merino tops they had added ‘mohair’ and ‘BFL’ tops.
So, how does Mohair and BFL compare to Fine Grade Merino Wool?
For the Mohair, I checked out the United Nations Trade and Markets Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s website and found the following information:
“Mohair‘s diameter ranges from 23 microns at first shearing to 38 microns in older animals. Fine hair from younger animals is used in clothing, while thicker hair from older animals goes into rugs and carpets and heavy fabrics for jackets and coats. Light and insulating, its tensile strength is significantly higher than that of merino wool. Like wool, mohair has surface scales, but they are thinner, making it smooth to the touch. Light reflected from the surface gives mohair a characteristic lustre.”
So that makes Mohair right there at the bottom of the Merino scale but with other qualities that make it behave really differently.
For BFL I checked with the Bluefaced Leicester Union of North America and found the following information:
“The Bluefaced Leicester is classified as a longwool breed with a staple length of 3-6 inches, a fleece weight of 2½-4½ lbs., and a fiber diameter of 56s–60s count, or 24-28 microns. It creates high-quality semi-lustre yarns with soft hand, beautiful drape, and excellent dyeing properties.”
* From good old Wikipedia: “Any wool finer than 25 microns can be used for garments, while coarser grades are used for outerwear or rugs. The finer the wool, the softer it is, while coarser grades are more durable and less prone to pilling.”
If you’re looking for Fine Merino, BFL, and Mohair, they’re having a ‘festival of white’ over at the Wool Box…they’ve done their usual magic by taking raw wool from around the world and using centuries of Italian expertise in the wool trade to process it into lovely fiber for spinning and felting…check it out:
“Taking a look at three diameters of the same fiber can help us fully appreciate the unique qualities of each one. Today we got some Australian Merino wool fresh from the combers. We’ve been looking to get ahold of this wool for some time and our efforts have finally paid off; this is the very best.
We had thought of offering this kind of choice because our clients have told us that one of their major concerns is being uncertain about finding fibers with reliably consistent characteristics on the market. Basically, often one has no certainty regarding the fineness of the fiber and, in some cases; it’s quite difficult to find the quality that you want.
We complete our ‘festival of white’ offerings with carded sliver tops of South African Mohair and the increasingly popular BFL. These wools, along with the three qualities of Merino, are being offered at excellent prices, even more so if you order more than 5 kg (11 lbs) or take advantage of our More Friends, More Savings program.” – The Wool Box
Meanwhile, remember: although the word merino is often used when referring woolen garments and fibers, that doesn’t mean that fiber, yarn or fabric is actually 100% merino wool from a Merino variety bred particularly for its wool. The wool of any Merino sheep is considered “merino wool” even though not all merino sheep produce wool suitable for clothing or knitwear that’s to be worn close to your skin! Happy wool-working…