Written by Julie Bird, founder of Sleepy Merino, and a wool grower from Inverell NSW. Julie's mission is to improve the sleep and well-being of people all over the world with Australian Merino wool.
Australia is a land synonymous with the Merino sheep, a breed prized for its luxurious and soft wool. Yet, ironically, many Australians seem to underestimate the value of this homegrown treasure, especially when compared to overseas markets. Despite being the epicenter of Merino wool production, many locals perceive it as either 'itchy' or just simply just don’t understand it’s amazing properties. In stark contrast, global markets are clamouring for high-quality Merino wool products. In countries like Italy, Japan, and the United States, Merino wool is synonymous with luxury and quality. Brands in these nations market Merino products as premium options, offering comfort, thermal regulation, and durability. Whether it's high-end fashion houses in Milan or outdoor gear shops in Colorado, the international consumer understands and appreciates the unique qualities of Merino wool. So why is there this disconnect? Let's dive deeper.
My experiences as an Australian Merino sleepwear manufacturer
I started my Merino sleepwear and loungewear manufacturing business, Sleepy Merino, 4 years ago to diversify income for our drought-stricken Merino wool growing property in Northern NSW. The wonderful properties of Merino are perfect for sleepwear, as proven by scientific research that it helps both children and adults get to sleep, and stay asleep. If you are interested you can read the research paper here- the results are astounding. Response to our sleepwear has been amazing, with many very happy customers. Once people try sleeping in Merino, they are hooked! Yet there is a portion of Australians, especially women, who are missing out these benefits, as unlike my export customers from around the globe who have been using next-to-skin Merino for some time now, they have a lack of understanding of Merino, and life-long pre-conceived ideas about wool in general.
The Myth of the Itch
One of the most common misconceptions about Merino wool in Australia is that it is itchy. This stereotype likely originates from the coarse wool often used in school uniforms, making an entire generation wary of woollen garments. However, Merino wool is a far cry from these scratchy fabrics. With its finer fibres, Merino is significantly softer and more comfortable against the skin and in fact, Merino wool is recommended by dermatologists for those with skin conditions. Wool as an allergen has also been disproven.
Having a bricks and mortar store has allowed people to come in and feel the Merino fabric, and they are amazed at it’s softness. Despite never having a returned garment for being itchy, I have had a couple of incidents of husbands buying their wives a gift of Merino sleepwear, only to return it without their wife even giving it a go. They just don’t wear wool…what a missed opportunity.
A Commodity, not a Luxury
Given Australia's historical economic reliance on wool exports, the focus has often been on volume rather than the luxury aspects of the product. For many Australians, wool is seen more as a commodity rather than a high-value textile that can be found in technical and high-end products.
Unfortunately, there have many instances of large retail chains selling poor quality, cheap Merino products, which shrink, run, and fray. These garments are a far cry from quality Australian milled Merino fabric, which is pre-shrunk before sewing, has been Oeko-Tex Standard 100 tested for harmful substances, and is licensed by Woolmark. While there are some good overseas fabrics milled with Australian Merino, many are very average. I very regularly hear comments from my customers who have bought products from popular Australian and New Zealand Merino brands which have moved to overseas production. They say the quality has decreased, with the original locally milled garments outliving their recently purchased imported products.
Back to the itch and allergy myth, it is believed that some people are reacting to the dyes, finishes, or other materials used in poor quality garments, rather than the Merino wool itself. Lower-quality Merino might also be itchier than a higher-quality, fine Merino product.
Another example of quality differences is comparing the beautiful Lindner socks we are proud to stock, with the multi-pack Merino socks commonly sold from bargain bins at markets. Lindner Quality Socks are made in Crookwell, NSW using local Merino wool. They are made on an antique machine, finished by hand, and last many years. My samples from 5 years ago are still perfect, no holes and don’t get eaten by my boots-love them! There is a reason you need a multi-pack for the cheap ones, they just don’t last, and do not fit well to your foot. They fall down in your boots, causing blisters, rubbing and discomfort. I’ve found that people who have not worn good quality, well-fitting Merino socks just don’t know there is a better, less sweaty and smelly, and more comfortable solution.
Aussies Love of Fast Fashion and Synthetics
While the media have been highlighting the issues caused by fast fashion, Australians are lagging in their move away from disposable, fast fashion. There seems to be a lack understanding of the origins, and issues of synthetic fabrics, despite living in a climate where synthetics lead to sweat, heat rash and pong! In a land of wide expanses, perhaps the mountains of discarded fashion which will take 400 years to break down seem far away, and biodegradable products like Merino are not as highly valued as elsewhere. The microplastics that are released each time we wash our polar fleeces are not visible, yet I believe are the emerging environmental issue of our century. They have already entered our food chain, found in unacceptable levels, even in fish and wildlife in remote Antarctica.
In Europe and North America, ethically sourced and sustainable products are highly valued. Merino wool, when responsibly produced, ticks both these boxes. However, the ethical aspects of wool production have only recently started gaining traction in Australia, and many consumers are not fully aware of the sustainable practices associated with high-quality Merino wool. Perhaps in the lucky country, with our abundant and natural environment, sustainability is not front of mind.
Marketing Dollars Directed Overseas
Levies paid by Australian wool growers for marketing is mostly directed overseas, due to the small size of the Australian market, therefore there is little promotion of the benefits of Merino wool to Australians. Along with other Australian Merino manufacturers, I’ve taken it on board to help educate Aussies about this iconic Aussie product.
The everyday applications for Merino, such as active, travel, sleep and loungewear, use much more wool than high-end fashion. At one of our local wool awards, most of the categories are for fantasy type fashion, rather than for designers of practical products that will sell a lot more of our Aussie Merino.
Lack of Understanding about the Properties of Merino
In my conversations with my customers, including wool growers, there is a lack of understanding about the multitude of benefits of wearing Merino wool, especially in our challenging and variable climate. Customers are amazed to find we have a range of summer Merino pyjamas, because yes, Merino is cooling in summer, as well as warming in winter. Merino wicks heat and sweat away from the skin and has been especially helpful for ladies going through menopause. As we all know, sleep is extremely important to our physical and mental wellbeing, so Merino has been lifechanging for many of our customers, who are waking up refreshed and ready for the day ahead.
Shearers are elite athletes, with their work often compared to running back-to-back marathons. Our shearers love their Merino shearers singlets, which wick away heat and sweat, so that when they stop for ‘smoko’ they don’t get cold from moisture next to the skin. And Merino is a lot less pongy than their cotton singlets..
In our country of ‘beauty and terror’ the fire-retardant properties of wool are well understood by those in the know. For the rest of us, we rarely think of the risk we take in wearing other fabrics when fire-fighting, having fun with our family around a campfire, or if we are unfortunate to be involved in a car accident. There is a reason synthetic fabrics are so dangerous in this regard-they are made from fossil fuels…..don’t get caught out, fires are ferocious in our part of the world.
Exposure deaths are less common in Australia than in other parts of the world, but still happen. When I was in Canada recently, I heard cotton being called the ‘death fibre’, as it absorbs moisture from the environment, keeping it next to your skin, causing hypothermia, and many deaths in extreme climates. Even if Merino gets wet, the reaction with your skin keeps you warm. What a magic fibre it is! My customers in cold countries, such as in Northern Europe, have a long history of using wool to survive. Their locally produced wool is coarse, so they especially appreciate our Aussie Merino wool for wearing next the skin as a high performance technological fibre.
Another misconception is that Merino is difficult to care for. Merino has come a long way, with most everyday next-to-skin jersey fabrics being machine washable, without the need for specialist wool detergents. Perfect for travelling, Merino requires less laundering, and dries quickly. Or just hang up to air overnight due to it’s anti-bacterial properties.
So, how do we change this situation?
We can all help Aussies fall in love with their magical, and practical, national product. If you are a Merino wearer, buy your next garment from a quality Australian Merino manufacturer. This will ensure you continue to love Merino, as well as support a business doing the heavy lifting of manufacturing in Oz-it’s not easy! Purchase sustainable and healthy natural fibre products free of plastic wrapping. While not the cheapest, Merino is the most cost effective and high performing of the natural fibres.
Tell you friends and family about the dangers of microplastic producing fast fashion made from fossil fuels, and the damage they are causing our fragile planet. Buy gifts made of Merino, so your friends and family can experience the difference. I’ve seen how so many of my customers have been totally converted to wearing Merino almost 24/7 after trying it. As sustainability and personal well-being become more prominent in consumer choices, it's time for Australians to rediscover and embrace the luxurious, versatile, and sustainable nature of Merino wool, a true national treasure.
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