Merino:   The Silk of Wool

Today, the finest wool there is is that from Merino sheep. Such had been the case from the late Middle Ages right into the Regency. But for centuries, that particular breed of sheep was closely held in Spain and could not be exported. That all began to change in the last decades of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century. So much so that there was what amounted to a Merino craze across Europe and America at that time. However, unlike most of the articles which I post here, in terms of Merino sheep and Regency Britain, this must be something of a negative tale.

Where were Merino sheep during the Regency?

The breed of sheep known as the Merino originated in the province of Castille, in central Spain. It is generally believed that this special breed of sheep resulted from a series of cross-breedings between local sheep as well as sheep from North Africa and the British Isles over the course of the twelfth century. By the thirteenth century, the fine, soft wool from these remarkable sheep was highly sought-after by the upper classes throughout Europe. But most of the Merino flocks were owned either by the Church in Spain, or the Spanish nobility, and they forbade any export of this breed outside of Spain. Any attempt to take even one live Merino sheep beyond the borders of Spain carried a death sentence. Thus, Spain had a total monopoly on all Merino wool exports throughout Europe through the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century, small numbers of Merino sheep began to be legally exported from Spain, typically as gifts from the Spanish King to a fellow monarch. It is likely that the first small flock of Merino sheep was sent to Sweden in 1723. But the Merinos did not do well in Sweden, so there no more exports for several decades. But in 1765, King Ferdinand IV of Spain made a gift of a large flock of Merino sheep to his cousin, Prince Xavier, the Elector of Saxony. These sheep were inter-bred with the local Saxon sheep to enable them to better endure the harsher Saxon climate. These cross-bred sheep flourished and the flock steadily expanded. A small flock was sent to Hungary in 1775, and in 1786, another flock was sent to the King of Prussia, but their breeding programs do not seem to have been as successful as that in Saxony.

In the same year the Merinos were sent to Prussia, 1786, a much larger flock of over 350 Merinos was sent to King Louis XVI of France. King Louis established a Merino stud at his Royal Farm at Rambouillet. There, Merinos were bred with English sheep which were larger and had longer fiber wool to create a unique breed. Those French Merinos were physically larger and had wool that was just as soft and fine as that of their Spanish cousins. However, the French Merino wool fibers were even longer, thus producing a yarn which could be plied even more finely without loosing its strength. Though the Rambouillet farm lost its royal patron in the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleon saw the value of the high quality of French Merino wool and supported the efforts at the farm when he came to power.

Sir Joseph Banks was able to acquire four Merino ewes and two rams by way of Portugal in 1787, for his own breeding program. In 1790, acting as the agent of King George III, Banks purchased forty Merinos which became the foundation of the royal flock at Kew Gardens. In 1808, the year after the French invaded Spain, King George was able to purchase an additional 2000 Merinos from Spanish breeders to increase the royal flock. However, Merino sheep like dry, temperate climates, because they need dry feet and dry coats to remain healthy. The constant damp and cold of England did not agree with Merino sheep, and even attempts to cross them with local breeds of sheep had little effect. Merino sheep are a mountain breed and their natural habitat is dry, open, mountainous range. It is in their nature to roam free. There was some attempt in Britain to raise Merinos in barns and sheds to protect them from the cool and the damp, but it was not successful. Confinement caused the animals great stress and the lack of exposure to the elements of their natural habitat significantly reduced the quality of their fleece. It was the dry cold and heat which stimulated the Merino to grow the luxuriant fleece for which they were so famous.

The privations and disruption of the government in Spain caused by the Peninsular War resulted in a steady export of Merino sheep from Spain. The Spanish grandees who had controled the breed for centuries were devastated by the war which ravaged their country, and were forced to sell off their valuables to survive, including their precious Merino sheep. Once it was known Merino sheep were available and could be freely exported from Spain, something of a "Merino craze" swept across the globe. Merino flocks were imported into several countries in Europe and flocks even reached America. An attempt had been made to breed Merino sheep in Australia in the 1790s, but it met with little success. Another attempt was made in 1810, which eventually developed into one of the significant aspects of both the Australian and New Zealand agricultural industries to this day.

Merino flocks were imported into the Canadian territories, and into several of the new states of the United States. One of the earliest states to import Merino sheep was Vermont, and flocks flourished there for more than fifty years. Flocks of Merino sheep were imported into Massachusetts, as well, but in a rather different manner. About a half a mile up the street from where I live in Boston is what is now a large wooded area known as the Arnold Arboretum. But at the turn of the nineteenth century, that property was known as Woodland Hill, the country seat of a successful Boston silversmith and mill owner, Benjamin Bussey. The term "seat" in England was typically used in reference to any large estate owned by a gentleman, but in Federal-era Massachusetts, there were only five country estates which were considered seats. All were owned by prominent men, and like Bussey, they were all deeply interested in the development of agricultural for the good of the fledgling commonwealth.

Benjamin Bussey, along with these other large estate owners, and a number of other prominent farmers with large holdings, were members of an agricultural society which held regular meetings in eastern Massachusetts, typically taking turns hosting the meetings at their homes. This was an altruistic society dedicated to the improvement of all forms of agriculture in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A particularly difficult task in a state with poor quality, rocky soil. Though the soil of the area was not good for growing crops, the members of the society knew that it produced plentiful grass. Grass which would make excellent fodder for sheep. Many Massachusetts farmers already raised a few sheep, for both mutton and wool, but the wool was of mediocre quality and was mostly consumed by the farmers’ families. But the more well-read members of the society were aware of the high quality wool produced by Merino sheep, and from about 1810 to 1812, the society paid for the importation of a number of Merino sheep, both rams and ewes, into Massachusetts. Farmers who were interested in raising Merino sheep strains were allowed to breed their sheep with the purebred Merinos at no cost, and could keep the offspring for their own flocks. Thus, the quality of sheep would be improved, even for farmers who could not afford to purchase their own breeding stock.

It would appear that there were similar agricultural societies in various counties throughout Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. Some of them also imported Marino sheep, especially in the northern counties and in Scotland. Unfortunately, as noted above, the climate of the British Isles did not agree with purebred Merino sheep which were bred for their fleece, and these breeding programs were not a success. However, there is also a strain of Merino sheep which is bred for their mutton. Their fleece is of poor quality, but they did fairly well in Britain for a few decades though they are no longer bred in the United Kingdom today.

Just before and during the Regency, large numbers of Merino sheep were exported from Spain into several European countries, including Great Britain. Flocks were also making their way to Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States. Though the Merino breed did well in most of those locations, they did not do well in Great Britain. Though there were some small flocks of Merinos in various counties across Great Britain, no matter how hard their breeders worked, fleece-bearing Merino sheep did not flourish. Merino wool never became a cash crop for British farmers. However, imported Merino wool was well-known and much appreciated by the members of the British upper classes who could afford it. Cloth woven from Merino wool was fine, smooth and soft, yet still had all of the best properties of wool, being easy to dye, draped nicely and was very comfortable to wear. Though there were few Merino sheep in Britain during the Regency, there were many, many ells of Merino wool cloth on offer at drapers, tailors and dressmakers all over the country.

Due to the climate of the British Isles, the successful breeding of Merino sheep anywhere in England or Scotland is not a path to riches for any characters in a Regency novel set in Great Britain. However, an attempt to breed and raise fleece-bearing Merino sheep in England or Scotland might be an historically accurate method by which a Regency author can beggar one of their characters, should that be required for the story. A particularly snobbish, fashion- and status-conscious young woman might make a scene at the dressmaker’s shop when she comes to pick up her new cloak or pelisse and discovers it is not made of Merino wool. Perhaps a young husband, though not wealthy, splurges on a fine Merino wool garment for his beloved wife as a gift for a special occasion. Though few people are aware of the high quality of Merino wool today, those living during the Regency would have been well aware of its special properties. Even though Merino sheep could not be successfully raised in Britain, neither they, nor their silky fine wool, need be ignored by Regency authors.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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25 Responses to Merino:   The Silk of Wool

  1. helenajust says:

    I had no idea that Merino sheep originated in Spain, although I suppose the name is a clue. Very interesting article!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked it. When I was first researching Benjamin Bussey’s life and his estate, I discovered that to Bussey and his friends, Merino sheep seemed to be a really big deal. Prior to that, I had always thought sheep were pretty much sheep. But once I started to learn about them, I realized why they were considered so important. And that the height of their importance came during the early years of the Regency.



  2. I’ve used the attempted experiment of breeding merinos with Sussex Downs and Lincolnshire sheep in a couple of ‘Emma’ fanfics. We know it isn’t going to work well, but giving it a go has to be tried by progressive sheep farmers…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Very interesting! And you are quite right, a number of farmers did try raising Merinos or Merino cross-breeds. I understand that there was some success with breeding Merinos and Lincolnshires, but not enough to make the breed commercially viable.

      I don’t know if it was the same in England during the early nineteenth century, but thought you might be interested that here in the US, men like Bussey and other farmers who worked to try to improve animal and plant breeds were often known as “scientific farmers.”



      • There most certainly were, although generally earlier than the regency. And by the way, Merino sheep were brought to England by Mary I when she married Philip of Spain and may have been used in improving the Cheviot stock. It was, if I recall correctly, a drier period, after the wet fifteenth century. John Elman of Glynde is one of the 18th century stock improvers, who developed the Southdown sheep, but the big improvers are Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke [pronounced Cook] of Holkham [pronounced Hook’m]. Coke had a model farm in Norfolk which was visited by a lot of landowners to see the new innovations. Bakewell concentrated largely on cattle, and between the beginning of the eighteenth century and its end, the weight of cattle more than doubled. Hoke also had a hand in Southdowns, and also worked on Devon cattle and on pigs. He was a colourful character who backed American independance and was still around in the Regency, having followed Bakewell in his work. Much of this had become possible because of the improved agricultural systems pioneered by ‘Turnip’ Townsend, and his introduction of the Dutch four field rotation system as well as the use of turnips for cattle feed, which meant they had no need to be slaughtered in the winter. In the summer they could graze on the fields under clover or vetch [called tares in that period, confusing when tares are also a destructive weed as mentioned in the Bible] which were nitrogen-fixing. The free dung didn’t go amiss either. Most farmers were using the four field system by the regency, though a few still thought it foreign and to be treated with suspicion. Allied with this, inventions such as the seed drill of Jethro Tull allowed quicker planting, Tull also invented a horse-drawn hoe which set the pattern for later mechanisation on farms, and the iron plough of Foljambe was also very helpful and in the 1780s the first iron plough factory opened. Meikle’s threshing machine was also 1780s IIRC and around the same time, Tull improved his seed drill. Enclosure caused a lot of economic dislocation, but in the long run it led to greater farming efficiency, and it was largely complete by the end of the 18th century. Hence conditions were right for the improvement of breeds, despite the burst of inclement weather from about 1785 to 1817.
        Sorry to go on a bit, the agricultural so-called revolution is one of my things…. Oh, and potatoes were grown for sale for the first time in 1777, which surprised me when I checked up on that….

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          WOW!!!!!!! Thanks for all the information, especially that bit about Mary I and the Merinos. I found no mention of that in the research materials I was using. Very interesting.

          BTW – It makes sense that sheep and cattle were not usually run on the same range since one or the other would have starved. The problem is the way they eat. Cattle have blunt teeth and need long shoots of grass which they wrap their tongue around and pull. Sheep have sharp even teeth which they use to bite off the grass close to the ground, thus leaving nothing behind that cattle can eat. That issue was the root cause of the hostilities between the sheep and cattlemen in the American West. Curiously, horses eat pretty much like sheep, but they don’t cut the grass so close to the ground and tend to move around more as they eat, so horses can be run on the same range as cattle without much problem.

          Goats eat much the same way as do sheep, which is why both of them were popular “lawn mowers” during the Regency. Thomas Lord ran sheep over his famous cricket ground every Saturday to “mow” the lawn until the middle of the nineteenth century.

          Thanks again for all the useful agricultural history information!



          • I have now the image in my head of the geography teacher who described the eating methods, using his hands as animal teeth and tongues with appropriate noises. You don’t forget it though… I did a LOT of poking around after sheep to write about Emma Knightley, and Mr Knightley’s sheep, as well as generally delving around into the history of the wool trade. The Spanish Monks did a lot of early selective breeding, as they also bred the Andalucian horse. And the grapes for Xeres wine, of course… I suspect sherry-drinking may have stemmed from Mary’s reign as well, though it was known before then as an import. And a far cry that was from cheap supermarket sherry of today!

  3. Nice plot bunnies hopping around your post, Kathryn, all well-clad in Merino knitwear. I especially like the idea of a character – a baronet, probably – being ruined by trying to breed Merino sheep. That’s a nice alternative to other, well trodden plot-paths.
    The financial ruin of the gentleman would only be the beginning of the story, as it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man who has lost his possession of a good fortune must be in want of a rich wife.
    Hm, is there a kind of a Darcy-Bennet story coming up, with a female rich Darcy – the clever but haughty daughter of a successful agricultural reformer and estate owner – … and a female cousin Miss Collins who is wealthy enough to save the gentleman’s estate and perfecrly ready to marry him to get a title, but sadly allergic to hay and country life in general…

  4. Lynn Currer says:

    I am a knitter and a writer. I love this post on Merino sheep. In my first novel, which I am now trying to get published, my heroine is an avid knitter. Since she is blind, she knits (instead of doing the fancier needlework of which she would not be capable.) And towards the end of the book, the hero gifts her some wool spun from Ryeland sheep from Herefordshire. Have you heard of this breed? It is one of the oldest sheep breeds in the UK and in the past one of the only British breeds to come close to Merino in softness. The Ryeland sheep grazed on the tops of rye sprouts so that the plants would grow faster, stronger. Hence, the name of the sheep breed. I have to credit discovering these tidbits about Ryeland sheep to The Knitter’s Book of Wool by Clara Parkes which is a wonderful resource, especially if you are a knitter.

    • Sounds a great resource! and it sounds a lovely book, I know Kat will invite you to post a link when it’s published! I am ridiculously pleased to find someone else who has chosen to write a blind heroine! I believe, though haven’t looked it up, that the Ryeland is one of the progenitors of the Lincolnshire longhair

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        Great minds, as they say!


      • Lynn Currer says:

        Thanks Sarah. I just downloaded your book None So Blind. Can’t wait to read it. Also, I wanted to share this informative link on the history of Ryeland sheep. Not sure if it will post correctly. May have to copy and paste it into a browser.

        • Smashing link, thanks! I did hear that there were some Merinos imported in the late 15th century but it was an unsupported snippet from the web, so I don’t know the accuracy of that… This then will be the ‘English wool which surpasses all others’ spoken of in the records of the Florentine Arte della Lana, the wool guild. I believe from snippets I have read, it may even have been incorporated into camlet aka camelot, which was one of the most luxurious of fabrics, a mix of silk and originally camel hair, later mohair. [medievalist].
          I hope you enjoy None So Blind, I write light and frothy for fun, but I like to incorporate serious themes from time to time too.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the article, and I am very glad you took the time to comment.

      I had not heard of the Ryeland breed of sheep, but I am very happy to know about them. I looked them up in Wikipedia, and they are adorable. Such sweet faces! I am also a knitter, so I am very grateful for the reference to Clara Parkes’ book. I will make it a point to get a copy as soon as I can.

      Your first novel sounds like a lovely story, and you are welcome to post a link for it here once it has been published. It sounds like it might fall into the category of traditional Regency. If so, if you have not yet contacted them, you might want to consider submitting your manuscript to Aurora Regency, an imprint of Musa Publishing. They focus solely on traditional Regencies.

      Thank you again for stopping by and sharing such interesting information.



      • Lynn Currer says:

        Thanks Kat for the offer to post a link and the publishing tip. While I like to think my story has the flavor of a traditional Regency romance, it would be characterized as a historical romance set in the Regency period. It contains a love scene as well. I didn’t realize you were a knitter. If you are on Ravelry, you can find me there under the name ‘woolheaded.’ 🙂 If you are not on Ravelry, you might want to check it out. You can find wonderful patterns there along with engaging online groups and forums. There is even an active Jane Austen Knits group as well. Thanks again!

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Thanks for the tip about Ravelry. I had not heard of it, and I am an even more avid crocheter than I am a knitter. I will definitely check it out.

          If your story contains a love scene, then it probably won’t make the cut at Aurora Regency. You might want to consider Wild Rose Press, if you have not yet done so. I have not published with them, but several members of the Beau Monde speak very highly of their editors and other staff.

          I wish you success in getting your book published.



  5. Patrick Clarke says:

    My interest in French Merino Wool is based upon my late father’s maternal great grandfather, John Theodore Hogan, born in Armagh in 1834, but who lived in London until his death in 1883. He came into the business after marrying Elizabeth Dodd (b. about 1836 in London) in about 1861, whose mother’s maiden name may possibly have been Molliner born in Naples, but reputedly French. The couple had three sons named alphabetically Alexis (b. 1866), Bertrand (b. 1867), and Claude (b. 1872) all baptised and raised as Protestants. Their three sisters were Ada (b. 1864), Beatrice (b. 1870), and Constance (b. 1875), raised as Roman Catholics. The youngest, Constance, is thought to have moved to Paris and joined the “Petites Soeurs des Pauvres”. I was just wondering whether you might know where I might search for more detail of the trade in London beyond the records available on Ancestry, as I cannot prove the link to the family name Molliner as being connected with the Merino Wool trade in France in the 19th century.
    Thanks, Patrick Clarke

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      First and foremost, do not rely on the materials which are available at Ancestry, which is not a curated research collection and is a hodge-podge of whatever users have chosen to post there. You will need to expand your search to find the specific kind of information you are seeking.

      In your favorite search engine, search on terms like “London wool trade,” “wool trade England,” “wool trade history,” and any variations on those phrases which come to mind based on the research you have already completed. That should return results for sites online which may have useful information and/or leads to other sources of information. Not all history sources are yet online, so I cannot urge you strongly enough to contact the reference librarian at your local library. Reference librarians are professionals who have spent years learning how to locate even the most obscure information, both in printed sources and nowadays, online. If you do not yet have a library card, you should consider obtaining one. As a library patron, you will be able to take advantage of the many resources and services most libraries offer today.

      You might want to seek out any trade associations which might date to your period of interest. Many such organizations kept records and, even if the organization is now defunct, their records may well have been archived somewhere. A reference librarian may be able to help you not only to locate those records, but gain access to them.

      In the interim, there are a couple of sources I can suggest:

      The International Wool Trade, by Julian Roche. It is part of the International Trade Series and was published by Woodhead Publishing in 1995. I have only skimmed it, but it seems to provide a good outline of the history of the trade, and, it has a bibliography, which may lead you to more detailed sources. If your local library does not have a copy, they should still be able to get a copy for you via their Inter-Library Loan service.

      Based on a quick online search, I found the following sites which might provide a basic overview:

      Research is very much like detective work, it requires much patience and perseverance. However, if that is not your cup of tea, you may be able to hire a researcher to follow the trail for you. Check with your local library or historical society, as they might be able to provide you with referrals.

      Good Luck in your search!



  6. Pingback: Cushions in the Regency | The Regency Redingote

  7. Lorena says:

    Hola desde España. Interesante artículo. Las ovejas merino fueron, durante toda la edad Media, una de las principales fuente de ingreso de la economía de la Península. De hecho, una de las monedas castellanas toma su nombre de dicha lana, el “vellón”, pues dicho término también hace referencia a toda la lana que sale de una oveja tras la esquila.
    Una duda, ¿se podía usar la lana para hacer los vestidos Regencia? Nunca he entendido que en un clima tan húmedo como el inglés se prefiera el algodón a la lana. Gracias. Y felicidades por su trabajo de divulgación.

    Hello from Spain. Interesting article. Merino sheep were, throughout the Middle Ages, one of the main sources of income of the Peninsula economy. In fact, one of the Castilian coins takes its name from this wool, the “vellón”, since that term also refers to all the wool that comes from a sheep after the shearing (fleece).
    One doubt, could wool be used to make Regency dresses? I have never understood that in a climate as humid as English, cotton wool is preferred. Thank you. And congratulations on your outreach work.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Hello from America. Thanks for stopping by.

      Britain may be more humid than Spain, but it is also much cooler. So wool, particularly Merino wool, would have been most appropriate for garments in Regency England. Though we think our modern technology is so advanced, weavers in Britain in the early nineteenth century could produce very fine cloth, even from wool. Though few women may have worn wool evening dresses, they would certainly have worn wool morning and walking dresses. Wool would also have been an ideal fabric from which to make riding habits. I hope that helps.



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