Wool is a fiber that has been used by people for centuries. Since its inception, Merino has travelled the world, and now New Zealand arguably produces the most high-quality Merino garments on the market. Below is a brief history of the Merino sheep and how this popular textile has become what it is today.
Sheep entered Asia Minor and North Africa with the Phoenicians. The Merino sheep’s Spanish foundation flocks may have come in the 12th century, introduced by the Berbers tribe called the Marinids. In the next two hundred years, English and Spanish breeds were intermixed, resulting in the Merino sheep we know today. Most of the Merino flocks in current use were founded on three strains: the Royal Escurial, the Paula, and the Negretti. The Montarcos, Aguirre's, and Infantado studs influenced Vermont bloodlines when Merino sheep were brought to the United States, and the Rambouillet stud enormously influenced the Australian Merino’s development.
Spanish Monopoly: 12th and 16th Centuries
The Spanish wool industry was noted for having high-quality products, and benefitted from a wool monopoly for approximately 400 years. These flocks were for the most part owned by the church or nobility.
The Fall of the Spanish Monopoly and Merino’s Dispersal Throughout the World
The Spanish wool monopoly was ended by the Napoleonic wars (1793-1813). After 1810, the Merino wool industry moved to Germany, Australia, and the United States. Merinos were brought to Vermont in the early 1800s, and produced a boom-bust wool cycle that reached its apex in 1835. By the late 1840s, wool prices dropped to less than half of what they were in 1835, and the Vermont wool industry collapsed. Importation to Australia proved more successful, and the country’s Merino wool exports remain profitable to this day.
Merino in New Zealand
The Merino sheep have also found success in Australia’s nearby island country of New Zealand. During the late 1800s, wool was the country’s major agricultural export. The Merino industry there benefits from its reputation for organic, high-quality garments. Mulesing, for example, is common in Australia, and its usage has caused several large fashion retailers to stop using Australian Merino products. New Zealand, on the other hand, has placed restrictions on the practice, which has limited its use in that country.
The history of Merino wool is fascinating. The next time you purchase a Merino garment, take an extra moment to consider where it is from and how far it has travelled.