Merino Wool and the Outdoor Industry

Merino wool is well accepted in the Outdoor Industry as being one of the better fibres for use in performance apparel.  Merino’s popularity can be attributed to a long list of special properties, including its warmth-to-weight ratio, ability to regulate body temperature, wick moisture away from the skin, repel moisture from the outside, retain warmth even when wet, and its antibacterial properties due to a high lanolin content.  However, it took visionaries, such as Jeremy Moon, the founder of New Zealand’s Icebreaker, and former ski instructors, Patty and Peter Duke, the original founders of US-based SmartWool, now of Point6, to convince a skeptical market in the mid-1990s of the benefits of Merino.  The prevailing mindset was that wool was coarse and itchy.

For decades that was true, yet wool was still in demand.  There were few alternatives for warmth.  Most explorers, including Hillary, Shackleton and Amundsen wore thick, rough wool to combat the harsh and extreme cold.  Soldiers wore wool socks and uniforms in the trenches during the Great Wars.  In Australia, “riding on the sheep’s back” is an old expression, representing the prosperity sheep and wool brought to the country from the late 19th century well into the 1970s.  The dominance of wool as a proportion of exports from New Zealand lasted even longer.  Ultimately, however, wool production in both countries went into decline with the rapid rise and lower prices of synthetic fibres.

By the early 2000s, there was general concern as to the future direction of wool.  What changed for the Outdoor Industry was the rise of Merino.  The key to Merino wool is the fibre diameter as measured in microns (1000th of a millemetre).  The lower the microns, the finer and softer the fibre.  The fibre diameter of Merino is generally below 24 microns, which is usually lower than the cut-off point where wool becomes physiologically itchy (upper 20s).  Superfine Merino can be as low as around 17 microns, which feels almost silky.  Emermenegildo Zegna created an award 10 years ago, called the Vellus Aureum Trophy, recognising growers with the finest wool fleeces.  To qualify, the wool needs to be below 13.9 microns, further encouraging the development of high quality, superfine wool.  The world record for Merino is now around 10 microns.

The three largest producers of Merino wool are all in the Southern Hemisphere.  The most sought after, largely due to the efforts of Icebreaker, is New Zealand Merino.  Australia and South Africa, however, are significantly larger producers, with Australian Merino beginning to make up ground in perception.  In late 2011, the Scandinavian Outdoor Industry gave two Norwegian companies, Aclima and Devold, Jury’s Choice awards for design and innovation.  Both companies source Australian Merino.  Australian Merino is also beginning to be sourced by New Zealand outdoor companies to make up for supply shortfalls in-country.

The success of Merino wool has become quite apparent as of late.  At Outdoor Industry trade shows, Merino apparel brands are far more noticeable.  Icebreaker, of course, but also fabric makers, such as Australia’s Merino State and New Zealand’s Mapp are often present.  The products are also becoming more innovative, to the point where Merino wool isn’t just for winter anymore, but can be worn year-round and in sports, such as cycling, that previously often ignored the fibre.

Don Jurries

* The sources for this article are mainly New Zealand Merino, Australian and New Zealand Official Yearbooks, and Merino apparel company websites…

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