The Magnificence of Merino Wool

Courtesy Ermenegildo Zegna

A visit to Australia with Gildo and Paola Zegna for the Academy Awards of wool.

Sixty sheep will get you to the moon. It sounds like a children’s fable, but there’s literal truth here. In an airy shed in Australia’s New South Wales, Marius Cuming of The Woolmark Company tells me that just 60 of the superfine-merino fleeces laid out before us include enough densely coiled material that if each fiber were stretched out and laid end to end, the resulting superstring would reach the moon.

This wool, once trimmed, baled and stamped “Ausfine,” will be going only as far as Trivero, Italy, where, at the lanificio of Ermenegildo Zegna, it will be washed, combed, dyed, spun, warped, weaved, mended and then subjected to a few dozen more finishing processes before ending up in a lightweight summer suit. (The typical Zegna suit comprises one fleece, which seems a fair trade.)

Most of us, of course, do not walk back the supply chain on our clothes. As Stefano Miglio, general merchandising manager and group fashion coordinator, says, “You don’t even understand very well that your shoes are made out of something that comes from an animal—so can you imagine a suit?” But Zegna wants us to take that journey, all the way to the savannah-like farm of Leo and Judy Blanch, not far from the village of Kentucky, in an area of New England—the one Down Under—called, rather coincidentally, Wollun. Here, at a property benignly dubbed Westvale, the Blanches have been raising sheep for 100 years.

And Zegna, which, as it happens, began producing wool a century ago, each year awards the Zegna Trophy at a lavish party in Sydney to an Australian grower like the Blanches. The goal is not only to reward producers for quality but also to help promote the virtues of a textile that is often misunderstood and dwarfed in the market by synthetics. (The winner, drawn from several dozen growers across Australia, is chosen based on a series of attributes, ranging from “trueness to type” and “conformity of length” to “yield.”)

CEO Gildo Zegna, who visited wool farms here as a teen learning the business, says it’s about “understanding the value of a raw material,” one that, for a time, he notes, was considered a mere commodity in Australia. Today’s processing technology, Miglio says, makes possible “superthin, trans-seasonal, naturally stretching” wool garments, so merino’s appeal is simple: “touch, look, performance.” Merino wool, the Zegna company wants you to know, can bend some 30,000 times without breaking. It is more durable than linen or cotton. It is naturally flame resistant. The same wool is used in the cape that keeps the Tuareg on the desert cool during the day and warm at night.

The merino sheep is tightly woven into the founding story of Australia, the world’s largest wool producer. As Robert Hughes noted in The Fatal Shore, when the early-18th-century British naval blockade halted merino-wool imports from Saxony and Spain, Australia, where merino stocks had recently been introduced via the Second Fleet, arose to fill the gap. But the merino, notes Hughes, “was a tricky and delicate animal, a pompous ambling peruke…unused to Australian heat and Australian grass.” To flourish, says Hughes, the strain had to be crossbred. Over the centuries, the number of sheep grew from a few dozen to more than 70 million—with some 70 percent descended from that founding flock.

In Westvale, it’s evident how far the industry has come. As Jim Murray, a longtime shearing instructor, explains as he watches a ewe named “Sharapova” (so named because when she was on the competition floor, “everyone could hear her”) being shorn, “the merino is the world’s most difficult sheep to shear.” In a skin area about the size of a postage stamp, these sheep will carry between 10,000 and 15,000 fibers. Generations of painstaking breeding have transformed the Australian merino into a veritable wool-producing machine. “The merino that came here in 1788,” Murray says, “would have carried 1,500 to 2,000 in that same skin area.”

And what, exactly, is superfine merino? It’s all about the diameter, in microns. A micron is a thousandth of a millimeter. The average human hair is about 60 to 70 microns. To qualify as superfine, the wool fibers need to be 19.5 microns or less. The smaller the fiber, in essence, the more comfortable against the skin. And the evolution continues: A decade ago, Zegna began giving an award, called Vellus Aureum, for ultrafine merino: 13.9 microns and finer. But there’s more than microns to consider. There’s the length of the staple; too long and it won’t hold up in the manufacturing process. There’s the crimp, or the number of kinks in the fiber. The more well-defined and resilient this is, the better. “Crimp to the manufacturer means a more elastic fabric,” says Zegna president Paolo Zegna, standing near the bales that will make it into his company’s fabrics. Staples tell a story; if an animal was sick, there will be a weak spot.

As they stroll through the paddocks, Blanch and Paolo Zegna seem an incongruous pair: the tall Italian with swept-back hair and a sweater jauntily tied around his neck, and the stocky, ruddy-faced Aussie wool grower, with a sheep-emblazoned tie. Drawing a connection between the exacting standards and devotion to craft at the Westvale farm to the production of luxury clothing half a world away is paramount to Zegna. Shears in hand, Zegna demonstrates how to take the rough edges—that part of the sheep exposed to wind and weather—off a fleece: “We both do the same thing,” he says.

Made-to-measure suits from Ermenegildo Zegna start at $2,995; sumisura.zegna.com.

Chatting Up Gildo Zegna

Q: Why give an award to wool growers? Isn’t it sufficient to simply buy their product?

A: When we created the award in 1963, the industry was moving toward coarser-framed sheep, which produce a greater yield for the farmer but less-fine wools. The trophy was seen as a way to reward the commitment to the quality that we were seeking from the Australian wool growers. At the same time, it has helped them gain recognition, which translates into better commercial potential for their wools. It’s a win-win situation.

Q: The connection between Zegna’s Lanificio in Italy and the far-flung farms of Australia is interesting.

A: The scope of our commitment has always been simple: Fine fabrics require fine and superfine fibers, and Australian merino wools are among the finest in the world. In the 1960s my father and uncle realized that Australia was a developing country with high potential, so they began investing, first with the wool awards and then with retail distribution. Over the years, as industrial spinning and weaving processes have improved, Lanificio Zegna has adopted new technologies without forgetting the importance of manual ability and craftsmanship. The choice of location, the choice of machinery, the choice of methods are all concentrated on producing the very best quality. Wearability and design without quality are short-lived.

Q: Your heritage has been built on producing the world’s finest fabrics. How do you continue to innovate?

A: Wool’s unique characteristics allow for continuous research into new effects and functions. Our next frontier is technical clothing, like matching track pants and sweaters. We’ve created Techmerino, a high-performance 100 percent merino wool that’s breathable, providing perfect thermoregulation against both cold and heat. It debuts in Zegna stores in September.