Delaine Merino, the (smuggled) Sheep

Posted on May 19 2021

Delaine Merino, the (smuggled) Sheep


The first merino sheep to set hoof on American soil were from Spain, two ewes and a ram smuggled out of their home country in 1790. During the height of the Spanish Empire, exportation of the prized Spanish Merino was a criminal offense punishable by death. 

Not long after the first arrival, more of the breed, this time from France, trickled in. By 1805 or so, their reputation for fine wool precipitated a Merino boom--and there was a rush to import more sheep. Some 20,000 head arrived around 1811. By 1900, merinos of one kind or another could be found in every part of the country, so adaptable were they to various environments.

Merino fleece is the softest of all, with 50,000,000 fibers per fleece to Romney's 15,000,000. Its wool is uniform, with a well-defined, even crimp. The staple length is short, 2 1/2  to 4 inches. (Compare to longwool fleeces, e.g. Border Leicester, with fibers averaging over 6".)

To better a good thing, in the early 1800s, a Vermont farmer worked to create an animal with more surface area for growing fleece, not by breeding a larger animal, but by aiming toward a sheep with folds (picture deep double chins). This sheep type later became a Type A or B merino.

Illustration from Sheep Industry of the United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1892. 

It’s not hard to imagine that the introduction of more folds wasn’t necessarily a success. The fleece inside these folds was greasier than the rest and the animal was difficult to sheer.

Illustration from Sheep Industry of the United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1892. 

Enter Delaine Merino, Type C. This sheep is a smoother animal, with fewer, less pronounced, chins. The fleece is uniformly soft and has an even crimp. 

As the country expanded, so did herds of merino. They reached the Mississippi River in 1820 and, by 1850, had made it to the Pacific Coast. They were spread as far south as Mexico and north to Canada.  

Some of the finest animals ended up in the Belle Fourche region of South Dakota, where you'll find them today. Stone Wool's Delaine Merino yarn is sourced and spun from these distinctive flocks. Fine and precious as their fleeces are, these sheep are more that their wool. Delaine Merino have a long history that winds around our own. Who will tell their story? 


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