It is widely acknowledged that if a scientist were to discover wool today it would be considered a ground breaking super-fibre due to its incredible insulating, fire resistant, anti-microbial and biodegradable properties. There is very little that I don’t love about wool, particularly when compared with manmade plactic-based acrylic yarns which share none of the above characteristics but have added downsides such as a heavy involvement of fossil fuels during production and the release of microplastics into the planet’s water supplies.
As with anything in life, however, there are always downsides and ethical decisions to be made.* The two largest moral conundrums of the wool world both concern the lustrous wonder that is the merino, a large and somewhat unusual-looking sheep which was developed initially in Spain but is now the main source of wool bred predominantly in the Southern Hemisphere.
The merino is prized for its beautiful fibre which is recognised across the globe due to its next-to-skin softness, crimp and long staple length - all of which results in a non-itchy, lofty and elastic yarn, perfect for a snuggly winter jumper.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore merino fibre and yarn and the quality is second to none, however, I have long made the executive business decision to reduce my consumption of merino in favour of British breeds such as Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) and Shetland. This decision was made partially due the practice of mulesing - which I shall come to in a second - and partly because of the reduced carbon footprint associated with supporting more local farmers.
The merino sheep in particular has been bred over the last couple of centuries for its fibre rather than as a meat breed (unlike other varieties such as the school-bully Texel or cheeky-looking Cheviot) and has large folds of skin, not unlike a Shar Pei, covering its body which increases the surface area of the animal, thereby providing an increased yield of fleece per sheep.
Although the merino can be found across the world it is in the Southern Hemisphere where they are the most common. In Australia in particular where there is far more uninhabited space in which the farmers can graze their animals it is not uncommon to find flocks of thousands of sheep being shepherded at once.
The merino is a hardy breed that can withstand a wide range of temperatures but in the hot, arid Australian outback the danger of flystrike is ever-present. The aforementioned folds of skin have a tendency to cover the rump and can become messy due to basic animal needs and thus make the perfect location for a wandering fly to lay their eggs. It’s a grim way for a sheep to perish as the maggots literally eat their way through the flesh of the poor creature causing infection and often death through ammonia poisoning.
Although in the UK it is common for farmers to dip their sheep annually to prevent pests such as these, the sheer scale of farms in Australia make this task nigh on impossible which has led to the practice of mulesing. If you are unaccustomed to the mulesing process it is effectively the removal of the flaps of skin around the sheep’s rump, performed on lambs using specialised shears at the same age as they are ear tagged and young rams are castrated. Once the wound has healed over it creates a tight, smooth patch of skin over the sheep’s rear which prevents flies from laying their eggs and thereby reducing the risk of mortality.
Although I can understand the reasoning behind the practice - the old adage, prevention is better than cure springs to mind - it has been proven to be a painful process for the young sheep with a long recovery period and therefore not something I personally wish to support when there are viable alternatives available.
Luckily Australia is the only country in the world which still practices this technique, New Zealand having totally banned it recently, and therefore it is relatively easy to find non-mulesed merino in the UK. At Sealy MacWheely all the merino you will find - both in fibre and yarn form - comes from flocks based in either South America or South Africa and are therefore mulesing-free.
This does however lead me on to the environmental issues associated with this particular wool breed. In the UK at least it is highly unusual to find home-grown merino and almost all of the fibre and yarn available has been ultimately imported from the other side of the planet. In essence this makes it a highly sought after but environmentally ambiguous commodity - arguably a better choice than importing cheap acrylic from China but still not ideal ecologically.
It has been several years since I opted to make the overall switch to British Bluefaced Leicester for the majority of my own branded yarn and fibre ranges - my art batts for example contain in excess of 75% hand dyed BFL on average with merino additions in colours that are difficult to produce by hand. That’s not to say that I don’t ever use merino yarns in my range, nor that I will ever cut them out completely, but I have made a conscious effort to use British breeds wherever possible.
(NB During the original lockdown there was a toilet-paper-esque shortage of yarn within the Indy dyer community which began with the more popular merino bases but quickly spread through the full catalogue of yarns available at the best mill in the UK. The BFL in particular has taken several months to restock and therefore I have a higher propotion of merino based yarn available in the shop at time of writing)
Due to basic economies of scale and its overwhelming popularity merino is definitely here to stay as the most readily-available wool for spinners, knitters and crocheters. The luxurious qualities of this breed are frankly incomparable by most standards but I remain a firm lover of our own beautiful Bluefaced Leicester - although deemed not quite as soft to the initial touch, it is a worthy competitor nonetheless with the added benefit of improved durability and less likelihood of pilling during usage.
For my fellow hand spinners I always recommend either BFL or Shetland, particularly when learning to spin, as merino is a denser and slippier fibre and thereby more difficult fibre to work with compared to the lofty and elastic British breeds.
Whatever wool breed you choose to use for your next project, please know that your decision bears absolutely no judgement from myself. I do hope, however, that arming you with a fuller knowledge of the benefits and disadvantages of the use of merino gives you the opportunity to make more informed decisions for yourself.
*Although I respect the vegan community’s decision to abstain from all animal products including wool, please note that this is not the forum to air any grievances related to shearing and shepherding outwith any ethical issues related in this post.