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What is Merino Wool?

By Hati Whiteley
05, Feb, 2018

We follow Designer Ronnie around the office until she tells us what is so great about nature's technical fibre

© Alpkit

Merino wool! The wonder wool! Nature’s technical fibre!

Yes, yes, we get it… Merino is where it’s at… but what actually is merino wool? What makes it so much better than regular wool? How are its qualities so different to synthetic fibres?

We followed Designer Ronnie around the office until she gave us all the answers…

"How is Merino different to regular wool?"

The main difference between merino wool and regular wool is the fineness of the fibres. This is measured in microns; anything finer than 24 microns is classified as merino, and anything thicker isn’t merino. These fine merino fibres come from specific breeds of sheep that have particularly fine wool (in fact, it’s around 1/10th of the width of human hair!)

A man wearing a red merino cycling jersey in chamonix

However, not all merino is created equal. The smaller the diameter, the finer the merino and the softer it feels: 

< 17.5 microns Ultrafine merino
17.6 - 18.5 microns Superfine merino
< 19.5 microns Fine merino (AKA extra fine merino)
19.6 - 20.5 microns Fine medium merino
20.6 - 22.5 microns Medium merino
22.6 - < 24 microns Strong merino

(Table from NuMei.com)

"Why do we use merino to make our base layers?"

Our Kepler merino range uses 17.2 micron merino, making it ultrafine. The fineness of merino gives a super soft feel (none of that prickliness usually associated with wool), which is what makes it so nice to wear next to the skin. The finer fibres also trap more air within the structure of the fabric, making it a great insulator.

Unlike synthetic fibres, wool is capable of absorbing moisture into the fibre itself (up to 35% of its own weight). This holds the moisture away from your skin, making it comfortable to wear even when you’re working up a sweat.

Where synthetic fibres rely on mechanically transporting moisture through the fabric, wool works at the fibre level to keep you comfortable across a wider range of temperatures. As a result, merino wool can keep you warm when it is cold and cool when it is hot.

"What about mulesing?"

Well, all our merino wool comes from non-mulesed sheep.

Mulesing is a method employed by some farmers to prevent the loss of sheep to flystrike. It involves removing strips of skin from around the sheep’s backside, to prevent the wool in that area getting dirty and attracting the insects that cause the infection.

We don’t like the idea of mulesing, especially since there are much kinder ways to protect sheep from insects (such as regular shearing around the back). The kinder methods are a little more expensive, but we reckon it’s worth it for happy sheep. So we source all our merino from non-mulesing farms in New Zealand (where mulesing is banned) so you can rest-assured that any merino product you buy from Alpkit came from a sheep that got a regular clean and trim rather than the cheaper, grim alternative.

"Why have we chosen pure merino for our base layers?"

Well it’s the merino fibre that does all the hard work of moisture management and climate control, so keeping our base layers 100% pure merino felt like the best choice. It’s naturally stretchy because of the crimp in the fibre and the knit structures we use, and pretty strong too.

There’s also just something quite nice about knowing you’re wrapped in a 100% natural fibre, a fibre designed by nature itself to keep you comfortable wherever you are on the mountain.

a woman wearing a merino base layer and sitting on the floor in a forest

"What are the benefits of using pure merino over merino/synthetic blends?"

We’ve already mentioned the benefits of pure merino that make it ideal for day-in day-out use (moisture management, thermo-regulation, breathability, odour resistance, amazing next-to-skin feel). Not needing to wash your merino layers as often is also a bonus, both for the environment and your water bill. So if pure merino is so great, why do we find so many merino blends on the market?

Synthetic fabrics tend to be quicker drying and more durable than wool, so – in theory – a blend gives you the best of both worlds. In which case, you’re probably wondering why we have opted for pure merino over a blend? In truth, it comes down to personal preference, but we prefer not to dilute the natural qualities of merino. By using an ultrafine fibre we reduce the drying time of our merino clothing, and by looking after your merino you can prolong its life.

"How can we care for our merino products?"

The better you look after your merino clothing, the better it will look after you! Here are a few merino care habits that it’s worth getting into…

  • Only wash when you really need to (washing is mechanically stressful for the wool and, over time, reduces the odour eating properties of the natural lanolin in the wool)

  • When you do need to wash, be gentle: either handwash your merino products in lukewarm water or on a gentle machine wash.

  • Darn away any holes as soon as possible, otherwise they'll grow bigger!

  • Avoid snagging, vigorous machine washing, putting your fingers through the garment, and hungry moths.

Nice one Ronnie! To find out more about when to use merino and synthetic base layers, head over to our Merino Vs. Synthetic spotlight

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  adventure travel alpkit base layers expedition kepler merino ronnie legg

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