From Spain to Space: The Timeless Tale of Merino Wool

Merino Wool: the epitome of luxury

Merino wool is the finest and softest sheep’s wool on the planet. Even in a world with self-driving cars, pleasure cruises in space, and air fryers, manmade alternatives still fall short of merino’s remarkable qualities.

So, what’s the deal?

Merino sheep have a long history stretching over almost a millennium, crossing cultures and continents leading to the hardy breed today. Let’s dive into the story, the sheep, and the and ‘stuff’ that makes this noble fibre such a famed luxury wool.

The Merino Story

Merino sheep are thought to have originated in Spain around the 12th century, likely bred for their fine and soft wool. The word 'Merino' is believed to come from the Spanish word 'merino', referring to the medieval Spanish official who inspected local sheep pastures – a kind of Middle-Age council worker. The term was eventually applied to the sheep themselves, which quickly became famous across Europe for their remarkably fine wool.

For the Spanish, the Merino breed was a closely guarded secret during this period. Spain maintained a strict monopoly for centuries, and the export of Merino sheep was so strictly prohibited that breaking this law was punishable by death.

By the mid-16th century the most expensive grades of cloth available were made entirely from Merino wool, even surpassing the quality of English wool that had previously been an economic powerhouse.

King George III – a keen agriculturalist - enlisted famous naturalist Sir Joseph Banks to smuggle merinos out of Spain to breed them with British sheep, founding the royal flock at Kew. Despite all the secrecy, in the eighteenth century, Merino sheep (presumably wethers) were sent as gifts to various European courts, including France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Prussia, Saxony, and Sweden.

The Woburn Sheep Shearing (1804) by George Garrard: If you look closely (bottom-right) you may spot the seated Joseph Banks observing the merino flock.
Image ©National Portrait Gallery


Over the next few centuries, the Merino breed eventually spread globally, reaching regions which now possess the largest populations of the sheep such as New Zealand and Australia (where Merinos now make up 50% of all sheep). From the original breed, numerous recognised variants have emerged, including the American Merino and Delaine Merino (USA), the Australian Merino, Booroola Merino, and Peppin Merino in (Australia and New Zealand), and the Gentile di Puglia or Italian Merino, Merinolandschaf (Germany), and the French Rambouillet (being French this also makes for great mutton).

Today, Merinos continue to be widely bred and can be extremely valuable - the record price for a Merino ram was set at A$450,000 (£234,000), sold at the 1988 Merino ram sale in Adelaide, South Australia.

Putting a Face to the Name

Merino sheep are highly adaptable and excellent foragers; this ability to adapt to their environment means they can be raised in warm climates as warm as Australia, or as cold as Vermont. Compared to meat breeds, Merino sheep have smaller carcasses with ewes weighing between 55 – 80kg.


Looking Chunky: Merino Ewes


Domesticated Merino sheep require regular shearing to survive well and are largely dependent on humans. Their wool grows continuously and must be shorn at least once a year to prevent health issues. The benefit of this is that – whilst they don’t necessarily live longer than other breeds – each merino sheep has a higher average lifetime wool productivity.

The finer the micron, the softer the fibre: Merino wool has a much finer micron than all other wools – and human hair!
Image © Woolmark

Merino sheep produce super fine wool fibres – finer than any other type of wool. Often when garments feel itchy, its because the fibre is coarse and ridged. The general rule of thumb is: The finer the micron, the softer the fibre. What clever sheep!

What’s All The Fuss About?

Merinos are prized today for the same reason they were a almost a millennia ago; their wool is highly valuable thanks to its exceptional properties. We’ve discussed their incredible softness, but that’s not all! Merino regulates body temperature by wicking moisture away, perfect for our mattress toppers that are designed to keep you warm in chillier seasons and cool in the summer months.

Merino wool is also durable, thanks to its elasticity, which allows it to stretch and return to its original shape. It's hypoallergenic, making it suitable for sensitive skin, and has natural antibacterial properties preventing odour, making it ideal for summertime wear. The fine fibres make our Merino Throws versatile, soft, and lightweight.

Soft, versatile, hardwearing: Our Herringbone Throw (95% superfine merino) is perfect for a cool evening outdoors.

These unique attributes make Merino wool the choice for the highest quality bedding, shawls, and beanies.

Merino and Mulesing

A critical issue within the Merino wool industry is the practice of mulesing. Mulesing involves removing strips of wool-bearing skin from around the breech (buttocks) of a lamb to prevent flystrike, a horrible often fatal condition caused by the parasitic blowfly. While mulesing aims to protect sheep from infestation, it is undoubtedly a painful procedure that has raised significant ethical concerns and even with use of painkillers it needs to be replaced with more humane measures to avoid flystrike in sheep.

Non-mulesed Merino

At The Wool Company, we are committed to sourcing wool from non-mulesed Merino sheep. We believe that the welfare of the animals is paramount and that more humane and sustainable practices should be adopted industry-wide. Alternatives to mulesing, such as the use of flystrike prevention chemicals, selective breeding for flystrike-resistant sheep, and improved farm management practices, are viable and more humane options.

Towards A Mulesing-Free Future

Several countries, including New Zealand and some regions in Europe, have already taken steps to ban mulesing, reflecting a growing and welcome global movement towards better animal welfare standards. This shift in the market towards non-mulesed wool is gaining momentum, driven by increased consumer awareness and demand for ethically produced wool. Major fashion brands and retailers are responding to this demand by specifying non-mulesed wool in their products. This change not only aligns with ethical standards but also meets the growing expectations of a socially conscious consumer base.

We transitioned the vast majority (approximately 90-95%) of merino wool sold to non-mulesed merino several years ago and we are committed to excluding mulesed merino entirely from our product range in 2025.

As well as brands, consumers play a crucial role in this movement by voting with their wallets. By choosing products made from non-mulesed Merino wool, we all support better farming practices and encourage more producers to adopt humane methods.

True Luxury

Luxury should never be at the cost of animal welfare. Our commitment to animal welfare reflects our broader values of quality, sustainability, and ethical trading, ensuring that our products are not only luxurious but also responsibly sourced. By choosing wool from non-mulesed Merino sheep, we support better farming practices and provide our customers with products they can feel good about purchasing.

Few materials have stood the test of time quite like Merino. Whilst in many ways they still outshine manmade alternatives, Merino wool makes up just 1% of the textile fibre used in apparel. If that’s not luxury, I don’t know what is. In some ways, this rarity echoes the fibre’s once closely guarded secrecy.

Regardless, much like the breed themselves, merino wool is extremely versatile and hardwearing.  The fibre’s ability to regulate body temperature, durability, and natural antibacterial properties, make it ideal for a plethora of textiles. I may be biased, but amongst all of Merino’s qualities, the standout is softness. For me, no other fibre – natural or manmade – comes close. Elon Musk, if you’re reading this; I challenge you to prove me wrong.


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