The Fibre Exchange Part I: Merino Wool

merino sheep

Happy Fibre Monday everyone! I’ve finally gotten around to finishing the first post of The Fibre Exchange. More than anything, I want to have a discussion on fibre. An exchange of thoughts and opinions on different aspects of the fibre industry and current practices. But let’s get to the point. This first post is about merino wool. 

So why merino wool?

Well, for one thing, almost all the hikers and outdoors enthusiasts I know have at least one (if not several) items of merino wool clothing.

It’s seen a huge surge in popularity in the last decade.


But wait, what makes merino wool so special?

Well, merino sheep are bred to have much finer wool than other breeds.

As fine as 19 microns (and sometimes even finer). To give you an idea, the image below shows a single strand of human hair below a strand of superfine merino wool.

merino wool
Photo credit: CSIRO

This fineness also means that it’s super smooth against our skin, without the typical scratchiness we sometimes associate with handmade wool sweaters.

Wool is also well known (and this applies to any wool, not just merino) for it’s antimicrobial properties, derived from the lanolin naturally found in sheep wool.

The combination of these two properties, smoothness and odor-resistance, makes it perfect for thermal underwear.

The New Zealand based company, Icebreaker, specializes in providing a supply of thermal underwear and base layers to the outdoor enthusiast community. Icebreaker has seen tremendous success since it’s humble beginnings in 1994, and is now available in more than 4700 stores in 50 countries.

Call me old fashioned, but I still prefer the look and feel of a hand knit merino wool sweater over a store-bought Icebreaker (in their defense, for a company of their size, they hold some pretty high standards in their manufacturing process).

So where does merino wool come from?

Merinos originated from Spain, and more than half of the world’s sheep population has some percentage of a merino breed in them. As far back as the Middle Ages, it’s wool was  highly valued, but was likely thicker than the very fine merino wool we know and love today.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who are the big players in the merino wool industry today?

Well, due to the immense popularity of certain merino wool companies such as Icebreaker, you would assume New Zealand, right?


Australia is by far the largest exporter of merino wool, producing approximately 80% of the world’s merino wool supply. It’s followed by South Africa as the second largest exporter, and New Zealand comes in a mere third. Out of the 33 million sheep (which is close to the same number of people living in Canada) in New Zealand, there are only about 3 million Merinos. That’s 9 %.

Last but not least …

To finish off the first post of The Fibre Exchange, I have a very exciting announcement to make, so read on.

Pascal and myself have long been looking at different places to go WWOOFing while in New Zealand (less than 3 weeks away!). For those of you have never heard of WWOOFing, it basically means you go and volunteer on a host farm for 1+ weeks, 4-5 hours a day. In return you get food and accommodation, which is not a bad deal by itself. But better than that, you get a chance to know the locals where you are traveling. This to me is worth more than gold, especially if you are in a new country and don’t know anyone.

Back to the announcement.

We will be WWOOFing at the Te Hapu farm during our trip to New Zealand! Check out the link, because the pictures are A-MA-ZING. Not only that, but they farm Merino and Romney sheep! I can’t wait to see these beautiful creatures up close.

So what are your thoughts on merino wool? Would you put it as one of your top rated fibres, or do you have some other favorites you’re hiding in the closet?

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Fibre Exchange-Merino Wool