Merino and Blue Faced Leicester, or BFL, are two of the most popular wools around. Merino is so awesome that even non-spinners, non-knitters, and no-crafting-ability-whatsoever people have even heard of it. BFL is a newer breed, and so far has penetrated the spinning community and is working its way through the knitters and crocheters, too. They are often compared to each other, in a “this BFL is as soft as Merino, but easier to spin!” kind of way. There are differences, though, and I think it’s important to know them as a spinner or a knitter. Maybe not as a no-crafting-ability-whatsoever person but hey, if you want to learn something new, keep reading anyways.
And I apologize, I tried to take pictures of the fibres but my camera and lighting just aren’t good enough. You’ll have to make do with my descriptions.
The Merino sheep was developed in Spain around the 12th century, if you believe Wikipedia. The Spanish knew they were on to something good, and naturally tried to keep the rest of the world from getting any. After a monopoly of a couple hundred years they were eventually smuggled out and spread around and now they’re all over the world, most notably in Australia and New Zealand.
Merinos are very . . . fluffy.
They are generally accepted as having the finest wool around. The organic Merino I’ve been spinning lately is 20.5 microns. Corriedale wool, which I think of as “average”, is 28-30 microns. So yeah, this stuff is very very fine, which makes it very very soft. Common sense dictates then that it is not terribly strong. That’s why most commercial Merino sock yarns have nylon mixed in, otherwise it would wear through after just a couple of days of hard use. Spinners may use silk or mohair to do the same thing.
It is also very very crimpy. A single strand of silk is long and straight. A single strand of curly people hair is wavy. A single strand of Merino is a zig-zaggy little bundle of energy, like if you tried to draw a straight line while in the car on a bumpy road. The bit of Merino I just measured gained 25% more length when stretched, compared to my curly people hair that gained only 10%.
Why should you care? A few reasons. Using a fibre that has its own sproing is a great asset when you’re making a fitted garment like socks, or anything that you don’t want to stretch out of shape. Only so much elasticity can be built into the structure of the yarn and fabric – you could spin pure silk sock yarn that’s extra twisty and plied super tight so it almost springs back on itself and knit the whole thing in ribbing and cables, but it would probably be constantly falling down and working its way to the toe of your shoes. But throw a little Merino in there and it’s magical sproing will keep your socks up!
Warmth is another thing. Each little bit of crimp holds a little bit of air, and that translates into heat that stays put instead of wafting away in the winter breeze.
As a spinner, you can manipulate the little air pockets to take up more space, resulting in more yarn with less fibre. For example, I just spun two different blends – 70/30% BFL/alpaca and 70/30% Merino/alpaca. It wasn’t a perfectly scientific study, the BFL was dyed before spinning and the Merino after, and I fluffed up the Merino a lot more before spinning. However, with 100 g of fibre in each skein, the BFL blend ended up with 93 m of yarn at 11 wpi, while the Merino is 117 m at 9 wpi. The Merino has more yardage of fatter yarn, with the same weight of fibre. The only difference is the air between the fibres. The moral of that story is to always sample – spin some singles, ply, wash and dry.
If you’re planning on processing Merino fibre directly from the sheep (I haven’t yet) they have very, very greasy wool. They can lose up to 50% of their weight during washing, so I’m told. And one more random tidbit – Merino wool has a fairly short staple length, between that and the super-fineness has given it a reputation for being a wee bit tricky and therefore not the best thing for beginners to spin with. Which I suppose is true but if you’re a beginner spinner and really want to work with Merino then I say ignore the reputation and go for it! But I say that about everything. I’m not a fan of telling people what they can’t do when they’re just starting out :)
Blue Faced Leicester
Blue Faced Leicester (I’m so proud, I can finally spell it without second-guessing myself) is an English longwool breed, developed from the Border Leicester in the early 20th century. I think they look like a cross between a sheep and a kangaroo.
According to the BFL Breeder’s Association, their fibre is 24-28 microns, up to 6″ staple length. So not quite as fine as Merino and an inch or two longer, which is why it gets that “Easy to spin!” label attached to it so often. Longwool sheep breeds are known for long, curly, lustrous fibre. As you can see it the photos, while the Merino is fluffy the BFL has ringlets. Kind of like the difference between a suri alpaca and a huacaya alpaca, but that’s another post. The BFL I have isn’t quite so OMG-I-can’t-believe-how-soft-this-is as the Merino, but it’s plenty soft enough for next-to-skin wear.
Because of their curly locks BFL wool doesn’t have the same super crimp as Merino. This means yarn spun from it is a bit less elastic, less fluffy, with less memory. But it’s got two things that Merino doesn’t – drape and shine. Drape is kind of the opposite to memory. Instead of springing back into place, it hangs where it’s put. Think of . . . a ragdoll cat vs. a hyperactive kitten. Ragdolls do this:
Kittens do this:
So a lacy shawl made of BFL will drape over your shoulders and sway mesmerizingly over your curves as you walk. Or swing aside and reveal teasing glimpses of your manly biceps and/or abs, if you’re a man. It doesn’t have a mind of its own.
The shine is a bonus feature. It’s terribly scientific, which is something I’m not good at, but basically all the crimpiness of the Merino reflects (refracts?) light all around every which way, and the smoother BFL doesn’t. On top of the lack of crimp, the scales on the fibre are shaped differently, which also means it’s harder to felt. Silk is even smoother and has no scales or crimp whatsoever, so it’s even shinier (and doesn’t felt). Make sense?
In summary . . .
Merino: Super fine and crimpy. Very very soft, not very strong. Shorter than average staple length. Fluffy and warm. Felts very easily. I forgot to talk about that part earlier, but it does. Take precautions when dyeing. A wee bit tricksy to spin.
Blue Faced Leicester: Quite fine, more curly than crimpy. Very soft, stronger than Merino. Long staple. Lustrous and drapey. Resists felting. Easy to spin.
Ta da! Now if you end up in the same situation as I was this morning, trying to remember if it was Merino or BFL that you dyed purple two weeks ago, you too will be able to tell the difference.