by Kyle Barraclough
What is the best wool? Merino, or ‘regular’ wool? Perhaps a different type of wool altogether? This guide will help any customer looking for the highest quality Merino shirts, pants, socks, underwear, etc.
Click to skip:What is wool? There are more types of wool used for clothing than most people realize.
Wool is the hair that grows on a long list of mammals that includes sheep, goats, llamas, musk oxen, bison, rabbits, camelids (e.g. camels & alpacas) and more.
What are the different types of wool?
Wool derived from the animals listed above is categorized in different ways:
Multiplying the types of wool by the different animals and breeds they are derived from creates a list too large to efficiently explore here. After all, there are over 1,000 distinct breeds of sheep worldwide.
NOTE: Among the 1,000+ sheep breeds, there are no breeds or end uses called “Regular,” “Normal,” or “Traditional”. So, there is no such thing as “regular wool,” “normal wool” or “traditional wool.” But, such terms are widely used and usually understood in context. For example, if comparing Merino wool clothing to clothing made of another type of wool, it would be understood that “regular” is referring to whatever wool is/was used if not using Merino.
So, if Merino wool merits a proper name while ‘regular’ wools are relegated to a catch-all label, then what is so special about Merino wool? Read on...
Merino is a breed of sheep. Merino wool is simply the wool that comes from that breed. It is not a quality rating.
Merino has become popular because innovations in textile technology and animal science have combined to create much lighter weight products with next-to-skin softness. While Merino sheep have existed for hundreds of years, it is these innovations over the last 50 years that have allowed wool producers to increase the comfort and apply it to more consumer products than was previously possible. (For more details on these innovations, jump over to our “Is Merino Wool Itchy?” guide and look for the Textile Technology section.)
The primary difference between Merino wool and other sheep wools is that Merino can grow finer fibers. This characteristic leads to some distinct advantages over coarser wool. Such as:
Merino clothing isn’t itchy. All wool fabric is made of yarns that have protruding fibers that rub against the skin. The coarser wool fibers are wider and stiffer causing irritation whereas Merino’s fine fibers are much softer (See our “Itchy Guide” for more scientific details).
The itch factor is why there is much more Merino wool clothing on the market than that made from other kinds of sheep wools. Who would buy an itchy t-shirt? In the apparel market, the only overlap between Merino and ‘regular’ wool is in clothing not worn next to the skin (e.g. suits, overcoats).
Merino wool dries faster than coarser wools. All types of wool are moisture wicking and extremely absorbent. But, coarse fibers soak up so much water that they take longer to dry. In apparel, Merino’s lighter weight creates the advantage of superior moisture management that both wicks vapor off the skin and releases the moisture into the air at a faster rate that keeps the wearer dry.
Is Merino Wool Better Than ‘Regular’ Wool?
Do the advantages listed above mean that Merino is ‘better?’ Actually, this is the wrong question to ask when evaluating quality because other types of wool can be of top quality as well.
Historically, the wool and textile industries rated quality in terms of handfeel which was expressed by fineness and expert craftsmanship (e.g. weaving, finishing). The finer wools also happened to be rare which raised the price giving it exclusivity.
However, lightweight Merino is now used in new apparel categories. T-shirts and underwear are on the rise and wool suit usage is declining. Therefore, a customer would be right to expand the definition of “quality wool.” A more up-to-date measure of quality might include an evaluation based on the aspects that are relevant to the purpose (i.e. performance, comfort, durability, sustainability, ethics, etc.).
Customers are demanding more from their clothes and Merino is proving to be a bit of a miracle fabric because of its performance characteristics. Therefore, “better” depends on the ability to perform according to specific customer needs. (And despite current trends, sometimes those needs still require a $10,000 suit made of rare wool.)
But as was stated previously, Merino is often used for different products than other sheep wools. If comparing next-to-skin wool clothing (e.g. activewear, button-ups, underwear, etc.), it is likely customers will be comparing between two Merino wool items.
Even if two products are both made of Merino, getting the right tool for the right job does require some fabric and fiber knowledge. For every advantage, there is a disadvantage. Wool clothing is a great example of this. Comparisons are usually made according to softness; fabric weight; % wool content; yarn fineness; as well as eco-friendly and ethical production methods.
Softness (i.e. Handfeel)
This is one of the most popular criteria when evaluating wool clothing. Soft wool looks and feels luxurious. Soft, wool underwear is desirable for obvious reasons. But, a really soft wool shirt might droop over the shoulders like pajamas and not look as crisp.
Yarn fineness (i.e. fiber diameter) is associated with softness as well as being rarer. The finer the yarn, the softer the handfeel. However, fine yarn can be less durable and wrinkle more if the fabric is too light. Sometimes, very fine yarn is woven/knitted into heavier fabrics to compensate for this.
Lighter weight fabric is cooler and dries faster. But, since it isn’t as warm the best shirt will depend on where it is worn; sunny San Diego or cool Copenhagen.
% Wool Content
Higher wool content will maximize certain capabilities such as odor resistance, moisture wicking and thermal regulation. For example, 100% Merino wool shirts can be worn endlessly without collecting body odor whereas a wool/cotton blend would start to stink earlier and take longer to dry.
Environmental & Ethical Considerations
Not all Merino flocks are raised with the same environmental and ethical standards. Any responsible brand will source their wool from certified suppliers. For details on those certifications and specific questions to ask brands before buying, see our “Merino Wool 2020” guide and jump to the Sustainability & Ethics section.
To further evaluate wool and wool products, familiarity with the following classifications is necessary. NOTE: These classifications apply to all types of wool, not just Merino.
These terms mean the same thing: wool that is shorn from the living sheep and has never been part of another product. One of the great advantages of wool is that it is recyclable and has a long life cycle. But for this reason, a distinction is made between new wool and wool that has been recycled.
This term refers to the content of a product consisting of 100% new (or, virgin) wool.
Organic wool is:
“Certified Organic” is a high standard that requires significant financial investment and changes in methodologies from wool growers and processors. One hiccup in the transition to Certified Organic is cited by the International Wool Trade Organization (IWTO). Click here to see their point about veterinary medicines that are not approved by certifying organizations. https://www.iwto.org/organic-wool
Organic wool covers many areas from the way sheep are bred, fed & managed on the farm to the wool processing plants around the world. For the purpose of this article, we are intentionally limiting the information to serve as a subject introduction only.
While Merino gets all the headlines due to its performance characteristics and suitability for activewear, it might surprise Merino fans that other types of wool are finer, lighter and more luxurious while possessing many of the same benefits.
Read what one of the worlds authorities on Merino wool has to say regarding other types of wool in this excerpt from the exclusive interview:
"It doesn’t really matter where you go on the planet. Nature has found a woolly layer very similar to wool. A keratin protein layer for just about every mammal on the planet. Just about every one I can think of any way. From polar bears in the North to tigers at the equator down to the fur seals of the South Pole. All have a keratin protein layer immediately next to the skin. In the driest environments, in the wettest environments, in the coldest, in the hottest.
And when we looked at this area of wellness, we asked ourselves the question, ‘So, Nature has had all this time to perfect the fiber that works in every environment, in every climatic circumstance, how do we find attributes that are really valued by humans, that we can really demonstrate why nature's choice was best?'"
A lamb is a young sheep of any breed (including Merino sheep). Lambswool is the wool from the animal’s very first shearing (usually around the age of 7 months) and can be no longer than 50mm.
The difference between Merino lambswool and that of an adult sheep is that it is finer, softer, lighter and is produced in very small quantities making it rare and more expensive.
Is lambswool warmer than Merino wool?
This question is incomplete. Comparing fibers alone is useless to someone looking for wool clothing. On the other hand, to compare two sweaters of equal weight/thickness, but one of lambswool and the other from an adult Merino sheep, is a more valid question. In this situation, lambswool might have a slight edge. But, both wool from the adult animal and the lamb have a very high warmth to weight ratio.
Cashmere wool is derived from the undercoat of the Cashmere goat. The annual volume produced is much smaller than that of Merino making it significantly more expensive. The reasons for the scarcity are A) there are fewer Cashmere goats than Merino sheep B) the goats are smaller than the sheep C) the wool used in clothing is only from the undercoat making the yield per animal many times smaller than the yield from a sheep D) gathering the undercoat is an extremely laborious process.
In addition to being rarer, cashmere is:
Lighter & softer: the average micron in cashmere fabric is smaller than that of Merino wool.
Warmer: cashmere has been measured to be 7-8 times warmer than comparable Merino fibers and fabrics.
Silkier: cashmere has a luxurious handfeel and slightly silky appearance which elevates its style factor to the highest level.
But, as has been pointed out in previous sections, there is a trade off with lighter fabrics: durability. Some customers might find wearing and caring for the more durable Merino offers greater value for money.
Mohair is a high-end, luxury wool that comes from the Angora goat. (NOTE: Angora wool comes from the Angora rabbit). Like cashmere, it is lighter, softer, warmer and rarer than Merino wool. However, a key difference with cashmere is that Mohair has a crinkly appearance and is often used to make fuzzy sweaters.
Mohair is often blended with wool to create fabrics with the best properties of each. Since Mohair has a higher warmth to weight ratio, it is blended with wool to make lighter wool fabric that maintains its warmth.
These fabric blends also benefit from Mohair’s greater smoothness and lustrous appearance. Wool yarns have protruding fibers that can irritate the skin if too coarse. By adding Mohair, the fabric is smoother and softer while still preserving the many of the performance benefits of wool.
Angora wool comes from the Angora rabbit. The fibers are hollow and extremely fine (approx. 10-15 microns). These qualities combine to be even warmer and softer than Merino, cashmere and mohair. However, this fineness lacks durability, so it is usually blended with other fibers to make it usable in clothing.
Alpaca is seen as a potential rival to Merino if it can be produced in higher volumes at a lower cost. It shares many of the same performance benefits as Merino, but it outperforms wool and cashmere in the following ways:
Qiviut is the inner wool of the Musk ox. Like all the wools that come from undercoats, the volume is much smaller than that of an adult sheep even though the musk ox is a larger animal.
The advantage of qiviut over Merino is that it is finer, stronger and warmer. Additionally, it doesn’t shrink. A huge boon to anyone that has absentmindedly put their Merino wool clothing in a dryer.
Camel hair used in clothing is also derived from the undercoat of the animal. The fibers of the undercoat are hollow, finer, lighter and softer than Merino. It is also a much more capable insulator. But, it is predictably less durable given the fineness.
Vicuña wool is derived from the vicuña which is a relative of the llama. It is by far the most rare wool as there are very few in existence; are only found in the wild; and it can only be shorn once every three years.
It is also the finest wool fiber at an average of 12.5 microns compared to cashmere’s range of 13.5-17.5 microns.
While each of these wools has a number of advantages over Merino, cost and availability are factors. Additionally, each of these alternatives are very luxurious with silky appearances that might not be desirable for activewear and casualwear. These trade-offs are all considerations when answering the question, “Is Merino wool better than…?”