A battle of brands — or species — brews over merino wool

Are there differences between merino and up-and-coming, American-made Rambouillet wool?
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A sheep is a sheep is a sheep. Or is it?

The answer depends on who you ask — especially when the sheep in question is merino and its wool is going toward a cozy baselayer or pair of socks. In one corner: traditional merino wool from New Zealand, Australia or South America. In the other: wool from the closely related Rambouillet or Targhee merino sheep, the predominant type raised on American ranches. The fibers are quite similar: Both are fine, soft, breathable and naturally odor-resistant. But are there real performance variations between them — or is differentiating a matter of splitting hairs?

Put Point6 CEO Peter Duke firmly in the former camp. “Merino sheep are known for their ability to grow finer-micron wool," he said. What we have in the States is a crossbreed. It’s a descendent of merino.” (Microns are used to measure the thickness of wool fibers; the smaller the number, the finer and softer the wool. Wool used in underwear and baselayers typically measures 18.9 micron or finer, while wool for socks can get away with about 22 micron.) Duke maintains “true” merino wool is softer and higher quality, and called for companies that use anything else not market their wares under the merino banner. “By calling it ‘merino,’ people think, ‘soft,’” he said.

Outi Pulkinnen, design director at Duckworth, also supports precise labeling — but for the opposite reason. Duckworth sources all its products from one ranch, Montana’s Helle Rambouillet, and it’s darn proud of it. Noting that the Helle sheep have been bred to have distinct genetics from even other Rambouillets, she added, “The sheep is still a merino, and it has the ability to grow fine fiber.” (Duckworth baselayers are made from 18- or 19-micron wool.) “And New Zealand wool has a predictable, flat fiber. Helle Rambouillet has more variation and crimp for some natural elasticity. It has bounce and life.” Every Duckworth shirt bears the label “Helle Rambouillet Fine American Wool.” “Just calling it merino doesn’t do either one of us justice,” said Pulkinnen.

But the manufacturers who draw wool from all of the above don’t see much point in spelling out the differences. “My friends in New Zealand would kill me, but the fiber is the fiber,” said Keith Anderson, vice president of marketing at Ibex. “It’s a lot like dogs — it’s the difference between a golden retriever and a goldendoodle.” Anderson said the varieties have been bred to survive in different conditions: Merino thrive in areas with lots of vegetation and more stable climates, while the U.S. sheep are better suited to drier conditions and harsher, more variable seasons. Ibex sources its wool from New Zealand merino and U.S. Rambouillet and Targhee sheep, using finer fibers for baselayers and thicker, more durable fibers for midlayers and socks. But it typically identifies its wool as 100 percent merino: “[Customers] were getting confused,” Anderson said. “We’re not trying to do a bait and switch, but it’s information overload.” Besides, “Rambouillet is still considered merino.”

Farm to Feet, purveyor of made-in-America wool socks, takes a similar approach. Its products combine the fleece from U.S. merino sheep with Rambouillet and Targhee fibers, mostly because there isn’t enough domestic merino wool available to satisfy their needs. Farm to Feet combines wool of varying thicknesses from different ranches to hit their target of 22.5-micron socks; labels simply tout “U.S. merino wool.” “The differences are negligible,” said vice president of marketing David Petri. “In the U.S., the term ‘merino wool’ is understood to mean merino-grade wool of similar quality.”

Mike Stepanek, key accounts sales manager for Icebreaker, sees these questions as something of a family matter, like a squabble among siblings. He does have a preference: Icebreaker uses only merino wool, 98 percent of which comes from New Zealand. “On the planet, it’s the premier place for these animals to live,” he said, noting that climate, food and lack of stress on the sheep (read: no predators) combine to create a kind of terroir for wool. “We use New Zealand merino because it’s the best quality,” he said. But it doesn’t bother him when other companies label their products merino when they might include other wool varieties. “We embrace our fellow merino companies because we’re selling a similar fabric,” Stepanek said. “Our biggest competitor is the idea in the U.S. that wool is itchy.”

--Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

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