What is Merino wool?
Merino wool comes from sheep originally developed in Spain that has enjoyed widespread development, especially in Australia and New Zealand, where the flocks are selectively bred for fineness. The sheep provide a large long-stapled fine fleece, which makes them efficient wool growers.
Why use Merino wool?
Merino is a common wool used in many yarns and yarn blends. People often associate it with next-to-skin softness because of its fineness. This also means that Merino is prone to felting and pilling. Just get it wet and look at it wrong and you have a sweater for your favorite doll.
There are some issues with using Merino wool. An oversupply of Merino creates a cheap wool market for that wool, which makes it difficult for farmers of other fine wool breeds to find a market for their very nice wools. Flock management and chemical processes involved in mass production of the yarns are a problem for sustainability and animal rights activists.
What is Mulesing?
Merino are generally wrinkled animals, similar to a Sharpei dog, which, in some high-production areas of the world, result in the animals having excess skin removed from their rear-ends as standard practice. Farmers do this to prevent a bug infestation called flystrike, which can kill an animal. This process is called mulesing and many animal rights groups call it barbaric and unnecessary.
Flystrike can be controlled by better flock management and less focus on breeding for volume of wool per animal. In large flocks, however, non-mulesing management practices can be difficult. This is why small farms with small flocks of sheep are desirable for sources of wool of any kind as we can expect that those animals are cared for on an individual level and not harmed.
For merino at the moment, we try to find sources of yarn that are identified as “mulesing free,” which is the case with Italian merino, one of the sources in some of our yarns. Eventually, we hope to source the wool from southeast Ohio for a line of Merino yarns as we hear there are some nice flocks around the region.
What is “superwash” wool and is it washable?
Superwash does NOT refer to the washability of a wool yarn.
"Superwash" is a chemical process applied to Merino and, more recently, blue-faced Leicester or BFL wool fibers. This process either covers the fibers with a chemical wash to remove the barbs that cause felting, or it applies a very thin plastic coating to cover the barbs, before the wool fibers become yarn. The superwash process is supposed to minimize felting and make the garment less prone to felting, however, this is not always the case.
The label “superwash” does not guarantee a garment will be felt-proof.
Quite a few knitters have experienced profound disappointment when they’ve spent hours to knit a beautiful garment or blanket. They washed and dried it because the yarn was labeled “superwash", only to pull-out a mishapen garment or throw.
Should I use Merino wool?
Yes! We offer either superwash (usually abbreviated SW) or non-SW, when we can find it. Ideally, we would like to move away from SW wools, but they are difficult to find on a large scale.
If you’re interested in moving our wool and yarn sustainability efforts forward, and if you want to support small farms, we suggest looking for alternative breeds, such as Corriedale (a merino cross), Finn, and Jacob for skin-soft yarns. We look for such flocks and hope to offer their yarns in the coming years.
Even slightly coarser wools will make a yarn that will not cause itching, such as Gotland and Icelandic, both of which have what is called "nice hand". None of these are produced in large scale batches in this country, so you will need to look toward businesses that offer small-batch processed yarns made with some of these breeds.
How should I wash my Merino garments?
Treat ALL your woolens as very delicate because they are an investment that can last a lifetime if handled properly. 100% wool items will not need regular washes, like contemporary synthetic or cotton garments. Wool generally does not hold onto odors and tends to repel liquids and dirt.
When not stained or otherwise compromised, you can simply shake then air-out your woolens to “clean” them daily or weekly. They should only get a water wash when something is spilled on them or they start to smell a bit funky and need refreshed, which in most communities can be once per season or 2-4 times per year.
For washing woolens, I recommend that you follow my recommendation and handwash all your woolen garments, blankets, and household items. This should be done in cold water with a gentle wool wash, such as Unicorn or Orvus, both of which rinse very clean with little need for multiple rinses. Spin in a laundry spinner, or press the garment between towels, to remove excess water, then lay them flat to dry. It can take a couple days, but you won’t have to do it again for awhile.
What about stains?
It’s very important that you stop a stain from setting into your woolens. Follow my cleaning suggestions for stains at this link here.