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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Merino wool

I have a friend who has been hearing incredible stories about the wonders of Merino wool and insists that if I can find out why it has such unusual properties, it might just be the impetus to get me posting blogs again after my long silence.  In the process of course, she expects to get some in-depth answers. 
The rise to fame of Merino ‘Icebreaker’ garments all started nearly 20 years ago when Sir Peter Blake, a New Zealander who circumnavigated the world and wore his merino shirt for a solid 40 days and nights.  At the end of the test he was amazed to report that it smelled as sweet as the day he put it on. There have been lots of tests since to see if those who normally sweat heavily and suffer from BO [Body Odour] had similar results. They did. In fact the reports say that the Merino wool garment did not ever appear to be wet!  To explain, you need to know that sweat is just water with some salts in it and it has no smell itself. However, if the sweat stays on your skin , bacteria that are always present are activated and multiply and they are the culprits that have the bad smell. So if there’s no moisture on the skin, there’s no smell from you! 
You would be right to jump to the conclusion that if you wear a Merino wool garment next to your skin the Merino wool must be able to absorb water quickly and hold onto it so that your skin stays dry. In fact, as the picture on the right shows, marino wool fibres are scaly and they have a very strong tendency to bind water in their structure - actually they can absorb over 1/3 their own weight in water - wicking it away from the skin and holding on to it until it evaporates. In the meantime the merino garment still feels dry to the touch and has the same insulating ability.  
I heard an even more amazing story recently about an acquaintance who was wearing merino wool socks while he was trekking up north. While crossing a frozen lake he broke through the ice and got one foot soaking wet. He had no alternative but to continue the trek and much to his surprise, he said his sock kept his foot warm all day - it appeared to act like thewetsuit’ a diver would wear in cold water - the Merino sock made a good insulator restricting loss of body heat whether it was wet or dry. 
The diameter of natural wool fibres can be anywhere between 10 to 55 µm (1000 µm = 1 mm) as the highly magnified picture on the left shows - a human hair is around 100 µm. The picture also shows that the surface of all wool fibres - no matter what their diameter - is made up of scales and it is the large scales on most traditional wools that act like barbs against your skin and for most people makes it feel uncomfortably itchy.  Merino wool on the other hand feels like silk.
I’ve saved the best for the last!  Although Merino wool garments never smell, you may want to wash them occasionally! It’s easy - Merino clothing is machine washable so just toss them in the machine with the rest of your clothes. 
Researching for this post has led me to find out far more about the ancient breed of Merino sheep.  If you want more, click on Merino 101.   Rie