Merino, the word has almost became a trademark. I dare you to walk into any yarn shop and find a yarn that specifies the breed of sheep other than “Shetland” or “merino”. Okay, shops like The Fold don’t count, Toni was a spinner before she was a knitter.
Many new spinners are warned away from trying the fiber by horror stories of fleeces that won’t get clean no matter how you wash it, that it felts if you look cross-eyed at it, it is hard to draft, yadda yadda. It is more difficult to work with other breeds, but not the horrors that people say it is. Margaret Stove’s book Handspinning, Dyeing and Working With Merino and Superfine Wools has been really helpful, but some of her ways of explaining may take more than one read through.
Merino wool has the finest diameter of any of the groups of sheep breeds. It appears the breed originated in arid regions, possibly in North Africa. While the obscurity of its beginnings clouds its history, its recent history is much better documented. Merinos were valued to the point of having a death sentence for smuggling them out of Spain. But eventually they made their way out of the Iberian Peninsula and spread through Europe where they were then transported to other continents.
Merino has provided a large chunk of genetics for breeds such as Rambouillet, Targee, and Corriedale among others. It still finds its best home in arid regions. In saying that, there are many people who raise merinos in more humid regions. In the US some coat the fleeces, some do not. Australia contains the largest flocks of merinos in the world where it is a important to their economy.
Handspinners who choose to start from scratch with merino need to realize that there is a lot of grease in a merino fleece, about 50% of the total weight of the fleece washes out. Merino can be spun with just a cold soak and then spun, but it is more difficult. Margaret Stove in her book gives examples of what could be the result of spinning in the grease then washing afterward. In a future installment we will cover washing fine breed fleeces.
Merino is mainly found in white, but don’t fret if you are looking for naturally colored animals, they are out there, just harder to find. These fine fleeces are best for next to the skin garments and baby wear. Merino, especially superwash treated merino, has become very popular for sock yarn, but don’t forget to reinforce the heels and toe as it does not resist abrasion as well as other wools.
Merino, indeed the Golden Fleece. With care merino can become incredible yarn and garments.