Silhouette of sheep in sunset

Wool from merino sheep

Wool can come from many different animals. The most common type of wool comes from sheep, but it also comes from alpaca, llama, goats, rabbits and camels – to name but a few. The wool we use in our clothes at Woolpower comes from merino sheep that graze in Uruguay and the Argentinian part of Patagonia.

Of the more than 1,000 species of sheep in the world, the merino sheep is probably the most famous as its fine wool has long been popular for use in textile manufacturing, mostly for clothes. And wool accounts for just 1.1% of all the material that is used for textiles today. The majority (80%) of all merino wool comes from Australia, followed by Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa, USA and Uruguay as the major wool-exporting countries.

The quality of wool is greatly affected by the animal husbandry and the external environment where the sheep graze. Things that can impact the quality of the wool include access to food and water, the climate, rainfall, soil quality, vegetation and animal distress.

Nature’s own functional material

When talking about wool fibre and the kind of wool fibre that is most suitable for base layer garments, there are predominantly two things to consider. The first is the micron measurement. In other words, how fine or thin the wool fibre is. A normal human hair is 60 microns, while fine wool is in the range of between 14 and 23 microns. To wear a woollen garment against your skin, you want the wool to be as thin as possible. Otherwise the garment will itch. So, the second thing is wool’s crinkliness per centimetre. The crinklier the wool, the more air it binds, creating a warmer material. Merino wool has about 40 crinkles per centimetre, which is more than any other wool fibre.

Structure of wool fibres

Wool is made up of keratin, a protein that has a similar structure to human hair. Wool fibres contain 18 amino acids, many of which have properties that give the wool its unique ability to bind moisture. The fibres are made up of an inner core called a cortex and an outer layer of scales called epidermic scales.

The cortex makes up some 90% of the fibre and consists of two different types of cells that expand in different ways when they become damp, which makes the wool crinkle. The epidermic scales on the exterior of the wool fibre overlap each other, a bit like scales on a fish. When wool is unwashed, it is covered in lanolin oil which acts as natural protection against rain, making it waterproof.

When the wool gets damp the scales expand and rise. A bit like the hairs on your arms when you shiver. This means that wool can expand by up to 30% when it is damp. Wool has a porous structure that means it can bind a lot of air. This in turn means that wool has a great capacity to insulate.

Happy sheep

Using a raw material that comes from living animals means that the animals must be well looked after. We require that the farms from which we source our wool adhere to IWTO’s five specifications for animal welfare.

  • Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition – through ready access to fresh water and a diet sufficient to maintain full health and vigour.
  • Freedom from discomfort – through provision of an appropriately sheltered and comfortable environment.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour – through provision of sufficient space, suitable facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from fear and distress – ensuring conditions and treatments imposed avoid mental suffering.
  • Woolpower’s wool is 100% mulesing free

    You’ve perhaps heard of mulesing? It is a procedure that is commonly done on merino sheep, mostly in Australia. Merino sheep have a lot of wool and a lot of skin. This means that the sheep’s skin can crease. In Australia in particular, there is a fly that lays its eggs in the creases around the anal opening of the sheep. When the egg then hatches, the larvae burrow into the skin of the sheep and the sheep can face an agonizing death. To avoid this, part of the rear of the sheep is cut off when it is a lamb. Once the skin heals it becomes smooth and does not attract the fly to the same extent. It sounds like a good solution to the problem, but unfortunately it has been noted that this procedure sometimes takes place without anaesthesia. Since we care about the welfare of the sheep that provide our wool, and we don’t want them to suffer any painful procedures, we buy our wool from Uruguay and Argentina where the fly does not exist. This means that mulesing is therefore not an issue and we can thus guarantee that all wool in our garments is 100% mulesing free.

    Professional shearers for the well-being of the sheep
    Merino sheep wool is thick and the sheep need to be sheared at least once a year for their comfort. Sometimes, depending on the climate where the sheep graze, they may need to be sheared up to three times in two years. Wool grows approximately 6 mm a month. Compare this to human hair which grows around 10 mm per month. The sheep are usually sheared in springtime or early summer before they go into the mountains to graze for the summer. Wool from one sheep weighs around four kilos immediately after shearing, when it is called raw wool.

    The sheep are sheared by specialists who travel out to the farms and shear the sheep in their home environments. This avoids the sheep becoming distressed due to unnecessary transportation. The sheep are fetched from their grazing lands a couple of days before shearing time. It’s best if they stand fairly close to each other in the sheep pens while waiting to be sheared as this has a calming effect on them. The sheep are sheared in a sitting position and a shearing stool is sometimes used to keep the sheep still during the process. It does not cause any pain, and is mostly used to ensure that any unexpected sudden movement doesn’t cause the shearer to cut the sheep’s skin.

    The sheep are sheared so that the wool remains in one complete piece. Shearing usually starts at the tail and moves forward along the back to the head. Next the sides of the sheep are sheared, one at a time as far as the stomach and legs. The legs, stomach and rear are sheared separately as the wool here is of a different quality and cannot be used for clothes. Once the wool has been separated from the sheep, the entire piece is placed on a large table where the worst of the dirt and wool that is not good enough to be used is removed. Once the finer wool has been sorted it is sold onwards to be processed into yarn. You can find out more about how wool is washed and prepared here.