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Where Does Your Merino Wool Come From?

2 Backcountry Employees Went to New Zealand to Find Out

If you’ve ever shopped for baselayers or socks, you’ve heard of merino wool. It’s fast-drying, anti-microbial, and prevents you from getting too hot or too cold—basically, it’s nothing short of a wonder material. And its natural properties make it ideal for technical outdoor apparel. 

You also may have heard that merino wool is a renewable resource that’s better for the environment than synthetics. The fiber itself is biodegradable (yay for less waste!), and if the sheep are managed holistically, they can actually help improve the health of the land by keeping weeds under control, fertilizing the soil, and causing less damage to vegetation than other livestock. 

But like many things “green,” it’s hard to know as a consumer if the merino wool that you’re buying is actually sustainable. Where does it come from and how do you know? 

Last month, Smartwool invited Backcountry employees Katie Williams and Tommy Sutter to New Zealand to learn about a certification program for merino wool that puts environmental, economic, and animal welfare first. Here are some photos from their trip, facts they discovered about sustainable merino wool, and a peek into two farms they visited along the way. 

New Zealand Merino Company & the ZQ Standard

Katie and Tommy’s trip to discover the story of merino wool began in Christchurch at the New Zealand Merino Company (NZM), which sources and supplies high-quality merino wool to a handful of elite brands like Smartwool. 

In 2007, to help consumers get wool that’s environmentally, ethically, socially, and economically stable, NZM created ZQ—the world’s first merino wool accreditation program.

ZQ verifies and supports farmers who foster biodiversity on their lands and raise sheep free-range in stress-free environments—this actually makes the wool fibers grow more uniformly, resulting in better merino products for you. 

So, ZQ is better for the animals, for the consumer, and the environment. But it’s also better for the growers and manufacturers. The growers are guaranteed long-term contracts and know in advance what price they’ll receive, while manufacturers like Smartwool can count on receiving the necessary supply of ZQ-certified wool.

The big takeaway for Backcountry employee Katie? That merino supplies like these are finite. Though wool is a renewable resource, “the supply chain is very small and there aren’t endless amounts of ZQ merino available,” says Katie. Sourcing truly high-quality, sustainable wool depends on the well-being of about 600 ZQ-certified farms worldwide.  

Though the supply chain is small, size isn’t getting in the way of innovation, much of it driven by NZM. Enter merino wool shoes, a surfboard constructed out of merino fibers—even the official formalwear of New Zealand’s national rugby team is made of ZQ-certified merino.

Tuohys Gully Station

To experience the ZQ standard firsthand, Tommy and Katie headed south and inland of Christchurch to the Cardrona Valley. There, they visited Tuohys Gully Station, Sarah and Willy Scurr’s farm. 

At the farmhouse, over a home-cooked meal made with ingredients from the farm, Sarah and Willy shared their story. They use most of their 9,900 acres to raise free-range Merino sheep, but they also cultivate cattle and deer to diversify their income throughout the rest of the year. 

Tuohys Gully Station has been recognized as ZQ-certified since ZQ’s earliest days, and the Scurrs are committed to the program because of its high standards of animal welfare, environmental development, and long-term contracts that ensure the farm’s improvement for years to come. 

The next morning, the Scurr kids—Angus, 5, and Bryar, 3—walked Katie and Tommy through their routine chores. The Backcountry team even got to cuddle with a few of the farm’s newest lambs and was impressed by how much land the sheep had to roam in this picturesque setting of grassy, rolling terrain with snow-capped peaks in the distance. 

“I helped Angus feed his new farm puppies,” says Katie. “We collected eggs for breakfast, and then headed over to the shearing station to shear a sheep.”

Shearing season in New Zealand runs from the end of July through the beginning of October—spring in the Southern Hemisphere—and it’s a very hands-on experience. The whole family, kids included, pitched in. The Scurrs sheared with calm efficiency to keep sheep stress at bay and get animals back to pasture as quickly as possible.

After each sheep is sheared, the wool is hand-sorted by quality and micron, which is the diameter of a single fiber of wool. The smaller the micron, the softer the wool. Only low-micron wool makes it into next-to-skin products like Smartwool’s baselayers, while slightly coarser wool, which is also more durable, is used for socks and outerwear.

And exactly how many sheep were shorn to make the baselayer you’ll wear under your ski jacket this winter? The wool of one sheep produces enough yarn for seven of Smartwool’s Merino 250 Shirts or 48 PhD Outdoor Medium Crew Socks. While the farmers provide this wool, they rarely get to see the finished product. 

That’s why one of Tommy’s most poignant experiences on the trip was when Smartwool brought the farmers and their families a finished merino product as a gift. “It almost brought tears to my eyes, as well as the farmer’s, to see their wool come full circle,” says Tommy. “It makes you think about where your stuff is coming from and the amount of work that’s going into it.” 

Loch Linnhe Station

Just a few hours south of Cardrona Valley in Kingston, sits Loche Linnhe Station, owned by Murray and Karen Scott and their daughter, Sophie. Merino growers by day and artists by night, the Scotts have decorated their farmhouse with eclectic paintings and an aerial photograph of their property—all 27,000 acres of it. With spectacular views of the Nevis River bordering the farm, Loch Linnhe is home to Merino sheep, cows, and the family’s “pet” sheep, Houdini. 

Murray and Karen had been long-term growers with NZMC, so when it launched ZQ in 2007, putting sustainability and the future of their farm first was a no-brainer. The Scott’s farm, like the Scurr’s and many other ZQ growers’ properties, is multi-generational, so the family has a deep connection with their land. And the knowledge and drive to manage these farms is passed on from generation to generation. 

Now that she’s graduated art school, Sophie plans to take over the farm and continue following the ZQ standard to ensure the long-term vitality of Loche Linnhe Station. 

“It’s clear that these growers have an incredible dedication to growing the most consistent, highest-quality, natural performance fiber on the planet while ensuring the long-term sustainability of their land, families, and animals,” says Tommy. “It circulates back to the whole family concept. They take care of the sheep like they are part of the family—and they are.”