Home-Grown Luxury

Merino Wool

Nothing says Australia quite like Merino wool. Grown by nature and hard working farming families, Australian Merino wool is renowned as being the best quality wool in the world.

It is incredibly soft, like silk, and just as luxurious but still practical and durable enough to be used for everyday wear and bedding. Merino sheep are woven into the Australian story and were first introduced from South Africa in 1797 although these sheep originated from Spain. Today, Australia is home to approximately 70 million Merino sheep and the world’s most advanced wool industry.

Merinos have been bred over the decades to have wrinkly skin in order to increase wool yield. Farming wrinkly, woolly flocks of grazing animals in a sunburnt country has not been without its challenges, the most persistent of which is caused by flying parasite. The main priority for industry bodies like Australian Wool Innovation is to research and develop ethical and effective ways to make the aggressive pest buzz off.

Smooth Solution

The Australian Merino is not a single homogenous breed. The Peppin, Saxon, South Australian and Spanish Merino are the four basic strains, each possessing different characteristics. The Peppin Merino thrives in drier, inland conditions and can produce up to 10 kilos of wool each year. While the Peppin has a large frame and long legs, the South Australian strain is the largest Merino in Australia. The wool has a high content of naturally occurring lanolin, a greasy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of all wool bearing animals for protection against adverse weather conditions. Lanolin is extracted from wool to be used in the manufacture of cosmetic and medicinal products. At the other end of the scale, the Saxon is the smallest of the Merino breeds but produces very soft, white wool that is highly prized by the textile industry. The Spanish Merino is directly descended from the first sheep introduced into Australia and grows wool right down to the ankles.

The signature wrinkly skin of the Merino makes all strains of the breed ideal targets for flystrike. The Australian sheep blowfly (Lucilia cuprina) is a serious pest that costs the wool industry $280 million annually. The blowflies are particularly attracted to the tail end or breech area of the Merino which becomes soiled with urine and droppings. The blowflies lay their eggs which eventually hatch in the folds of flesh and thick wool. While there are several existing methods of preventing and dealing with flystrike infestations, they are not effective enough. The standard practice of mulesing has been deemed inhumane by many – and is being phased out in New Zealand – and the current industry focus is on researching and developing ethical but practical alternatives.

Flystrike is the most serious issue plaguing the wool industry although there are many people across the country like historian, breeder and writer Charlie Massy who believe that they have found the solution. At his sheep stud on the Monaro Plains near Cooma, Mr Massy has flocks of plain-bodied Merino. These sheep have been selectively bred to have smooth skin unlike their wrinkly counterparts. Could plain-bodied Merinos be the answer to preventing flystrike infestations? Are plain-bodied sheep capable of producing enough wool to meet consumer demand? Realistically, how many years would it take to breed the wrinkles out of Merino flocks across Australia? These are just some of the questions currently being asked and hotly debated by industry figures.

Sophisticated Styling

When it comes to style, Merino fashion has come a long way from chunky knitted jumpers and ugg boots. Merino wool has hit the international fashion circuit as a chic fibre brimming with creative potential. Last year, one of the most famous and controversial fashion designers of all time, Vivienne Westwood, teamed up with the world’s leading wool textile organisation The Woolmark Company to create a capsule collection for Paris Fashion Week. The collection was inspired by the 17th century with a touch of the punk style and British humour that makes the Vivienne Westwood label so distinct. With drop-waist cardigans, classic jumpers, crew neck tops, lightweight knit dresses and pleated skirts, the collection had something for both men and women. Throughout her career, Vivienne Westwood has always been a huge supporter of wool and her stylish collection showed the world Merino wool in a completely new light.

There are plenty of local fashion designers doing some extraordinary work with Merino wool, including the iconic Collette Dinnigan. In March this year, Collette Dinnigan teamed up with The Woolmark Company to feature Merino wool as a part of her Autumn/Winter 2013 collection for Paris Fashion Week. The collection featured some standout Merino pieces including glamorous cocktail dresses made from body hugging wool jersey, a sequinned coat and a pair of relaxed tuxedo pants. Collette highlighted the versatility of Merino wool by combining the fibre with cashmere, leather and lace for a modern look. The much-loved fashion designer is an ideal ambassador for Merino wool and was the only Australian label to feature on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule.

The Australian Wool Fashion Awards have been a driving force behind the use of Merino wool in fashion on the world stage. This year marked the 32nd Australian Wool Fashion Awards which started out as a small fashion parade back in 1981. The Wool Fashion Awards have become a prestigious showcase event that receives extensive media coverage and strong industry support. The main aim is to encourage young designers to get excited about working with Merino wool although the competition is open to entrants of all ages. Educating the public about all the wonderful properties of wool is another key focus. The competition has produced some fantastic designs in the past and this year was no exception. At the Saumarez Homestead in Armidale, 90 hopeful finalists sent their creations parading down the catwalk. Larissa Murdoch from Werribee in Victoria won the recycled wool category with an avant-garde dress and matching headpiece she created from knitted Merino jumpers found lying in op-shops.

Remarkable Qualities

Designers enjoy working with Merino wool for a variety of reasons. People who find ordinary wool too prickly against their skin will love wearing Merino, which is much softer. Merino wool is an active fibre meaning that it will respond to a change in body temperature and is absorbent, drawing moisture away from the body. It is also anti-static and possesses natural elasticity, making it ideal for sportswear. A significant advantage of Merino wool is its fire retardant properties. Merino will not melt if ignited like polyester or burn quickly like cotton. It has the highest natural fire resistance of all the commonly encountered textiles, making it the perfect choice for bedding and pyjamas.

Textiles made from bamboo, hemp and organic cotton are marketed to consumers as being environmentally friendly but just how green is Merino wool? Raw wool has to be washed to remove naturally occurring lanolin, sweat salts and contaminants like urine, manure, dirt and vegetation. While the scouring or washing phase of processing wool commercially uses huge quantities of water and detergents, consumers can feel good about buying a natural, renewable and biodegradable product. Merino wool shares the same earth friendly characteristics of ordinary wool. Wool production is not dependent on fossil fuels unlike many man-made textiles such as polyester. When wool is disposed of, it will break down in a few years and put nitrogen back into the soil, making it a biodegradable fibre. And Merino farmers are committed to the best environmental practices regarding land management to ensure that there will have green pastures for the sheep to graze on for a long time yet.

People are looking at Merino wool through new eyes and are really just beginning to explore all of the wonderful qualities that make it the world’s finest wool. The historic Merino industry has not been without controversy regarding how farmers deal with incidences of flystrike. It is important to remember that finding a solution to the flystrike issue requires not just funding but cooperation, understanding and being open to new ideas from all parties. Wrinkly Merinos could be history in Australia one day while their plain-bodied descendents roam the country. If the past is anything to go by, Merino wool is going to be seeing some exciting developments in the field and under the fashion radar.

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September 20, 2018, 5:29 AM AEST