For the first edition of a new series on sustainable materials, we’re taking a deeper look at merino wool.

In fashion, an unapologetic look will always make an impact. Being sheepish, however, might hold the key to reducing the impact of the fashion industry on our planet.

Renewable, high-performing, yet sometimes controversial, merino wool is a material that’s often seen and heard about but seldom understood. Is it a miracle fabric poised to unseat more damaging alternatives, or animal cruelty disguised as nice sweaters? Maybe, just maybe, it’s a more expensive way to say "sheep’s hair" — the Fiji water of wool, if you will, complete with its own brand marketing.

Whatever your view, here’s everything you need to know about merino wool.

Spanish origins

This exploration begins with Christopher Columbus.

Merino refers to the wool from a breed of sheep called — you guessed it — merino. The merino is originally from Spain, and the export of Spanish merino played a significant part in its homeland’s rise to power during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Columbus’ voyages were financed with wool money. His father was a wool weaver. Before gold, there was wool. The fiber was so valuable that exporting a merino sheep was a crime against Spain and punishable by death.

In the 1800s, merino sheep spread to the US and Australia, with the latter now producing around 80 percent of the world’s merino wool. But how can Spanish sheep survive in a desert country where everything tries to kill you? Because they’re wearing merino.

Shear power

Merino wool isn’t just grandma’s sweaters and Burberry drip. It’s a sustainable, all-natural performance fabric. Merino wool is stretchy, antimicrobial, and water-repellent, able to hold 30 percent of its weight in water (or sweat) without feeling wet to the touch. And best of all, it’s ethical and renewable.

Like trees producing oxygen, sheep produce wool. Shearing a sheep for its wool is the ovine equivalent of going to the dentist: in skilled hands, a merino's annual clipping is painless and leaves the sheep feeling better afterward. There are even merino-based projects like The North Face’s Cali Wool initiative, which, when all elements are factored in, removes carbon from the atmosphere.

The hairy details

The reason the fiber performs the way it does is rooted in merino’s unique cellular structure. Each strand of merino wool is composed of an outside shell of scaly cuticle cells surrounding a multilayered core. The cuticle cells naturally have a waxy coating, giving the wool its water resistance. The interior core is made of a corkscrew of porous cells. At the center of that corkscrew is a tiny, twisty molecular chain that looks and acts like a spring.

This spring-like “helical coil” gives wool its elasticity, flexibility, and resiliency. The porous cells surrounding it trap air, giving it thermal regulation abilities. With the waxy cuticles on the outside repelling water like a protective shell, every strand of merino wool fiber can almost be thought of as its own layering system.

The same fibers that go into a Thom Browne cardigan power the base layers of Everest climbers. Compared with a typical factory-spun, non-renewable tech fabric, the structure of merino and its benefits are astounding.

Oh, flock

That said, merino wool isn't perfect. Modern merino sheep have been bred to be sheared once a year, and if they don't get sheared (e.g. if they escape like a famous sheep named Shrek), they’ll encounter mobility issues and heat stress that can lead to death.

And while sheep aren't killed for their wool, there is controversy around the practice of “mulesing,” which farmers often use to prevent infection in their flocks. Google it should curiosity strike. The benefits to the sheep are real, but it’s not pretty.

Performs and looks great

Brands such as Icebreaker and Darn Tough use merino wool to make lightweight, all-natural tech apparel designed for sports. Others including Beyond Clothing and Stio use a merino-based Polartec composite called Power Wool to push performance even farther. It’s also a lavish textile luxurious enough to die for.

Every year, The Woolmark Company awards a prize for the best use of merino in fashion. Winning the International Woolmark Prize is significant. Past winners include Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, and Christopher Bevans, creative director of DYNE and sometime YEEZY and Billionaire Boys Club designer.

“The first season of DYNE was based in performance wool from a Swiss mill that is one of the leaders in sustainable sourcing,” Bevans told Highsnobiety. “I was trying to challenge myself and the sportswear world.”

Other designers weaving merino into their creative visions include Stella McCartney, Tim Coppens, and Matthew Williams of 1017 ALYX 9SM. Whether used for its sustainable properties or ease of drape, merino sits alongside cashmere as a luxury go-to when standard wool won’t do. And thanks to its cellular structure, merino can render sustainable everything from Prada blazers to the open-ocean suiting of the Prada sailing team.

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