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Merino – The Foundation Fleece

Salutations my Spinning Supporters! 

As you know some time ago we mentioned developing a Peri-baa-tic Table of the Breeds. WELL.  WELL. It’s nearly done and it’s pretty darn exciting if I do say so myself.  

January is all about a breed which, I must say, I think is perfectly suited to take its place as the Hydrogen of Sheep Breeds: Merino. Just as hydrogen holds its position with an atomic number of 1, launching it all, so merino is the foundation of oh so very many breeds (not to mention the blood count system of measuring fiber!) and takes its place as number 1 in the hearts of so many spinners. You’ll find our Sheep-o-pedia entry on Merino helpful.

Known for its softness, and recognizable to even non fiber people for its presence in catalogs and textile labels everywhere, Merino is a very versatile fiber.  It comes in an array of colors from snow white to black and has a micron count of 11.6-25, a wide spectrum when you consider that cashmere is about a 16 and Cheviot is about a 26! It’s crimpy, has very dense locks, and lots of grease – so count on at least 50% loss in weight from a raw fleece.   It’s also a fiber many mills were designed around so that 3” staple rule is pretty solid here: most Merino staple lengths will be in the 3” range. Also, because most Merino clips go to mills, expect dirty tips which trap dirt and grime away from the rest of the lock; take advantage of those cold soaks!  These fleeces are DENSE and thus they are also frequently quite large, averaging 9-14 pounds. A single 14# Merino fleece will keep you busy for a long long time – especially if you like to spin fine yarns.  

For the historical nerds among us, the Merino is the source of the Spanish Empire’s wealth – prior to colonial conquest in Latin America.  The Spanish court got their flocks from the Beni-Merines, members of a Berber tribe in Morocco and one of the sources of the name Merino – the other source is a Leonese government official known as a merino who may have inspected sheep pastures – from whom they acquired excellent rams to breed with their finest native ewes in the twelfth century! By the Middle Ages, Spain had bred these sheep to such quality that they cornered the European wool market and by the end of the Renaissance, they were gifting sheep to their relatives in other European courts.  

Merino itself comes in about fourteen different strains.  Debullet, Cormo and Rambouillet are also strains of Merino, but they are considered their own breeds now.  A recent genome study on global sheep breeds found 74 breeds from 6 continents with the Merino genotype! A small sample of includes, but is not limited to: Corriedale, Targhee, Polwarth, Oussant, Ile de France, Finn, Boreray, Cheviot.  A huge number of feral sheep also have Merino bloodlines, such as Soay, Gulf Coast, Santa Cruz, and Arapawa Island. Merino really gets around! 

A word of caution when scouring Merino: if you don’t get the grease out the first time, it’s REALLY hard to get out later.  To help you be more successful, I recommend a few extra things when working with Merino (and the Merino family):

  1. Make sure you have a VERY reliable scouring agent, such as Power Scour or Kookaburra.  This is important because things like Dawn require so many more rinses, and every time you change water with a persnickety grease removal fleece, you risk temperature drops and felting.  
  2. Do a cold soak first to loosen up stuck tips and get some of the dirt out before you begin to scour. This will also loosen up the grease and start its removal process.  
  3. Make your water extra hot.  I don’t normally need to, but if I find I have a particularly grimy fleece, or a Merino family fleece, I increase my water temperature and NEVER let it drop.  My normal 18 minute soaks become 12-15 minute soaks just to make sure. If that temperature drops, the grease can redeposit. 
  4. Be EXTRA careful not to agitate it.  All those super fine scales beng open, in all those very dense and crimpy locks lend themselves to easy felting.  This is another reason why a very good wool scour is so important; they’re designed to work in tap water at lower temperatures and require fewer scours and rinses to do their job.  
  5. Consider a 3rd scour cycle – but do it cautiously.  

It’s fitting that Merino starts our Per-baa-tic table.  

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