Today on our EU tour of sheep and wool we are in Spain where the word for sheep is oveja and the word for wool is lana. Spain is where the infamous merino originates from and to give some historical context, we shall begin by quoting from the excellent tome The Wool Trade Past and Present, by K. G. Ponting:
The Spanish Merino
Fine woolled sheep, later to be known as the merino, were established in Spain by the thirteenth century and formed the great migratory flocks that Don Quixote saw making their annual trek from the summer pastures of the north to their winter quarters on the plains of Estremadura and Andalusia… The wool was known in Flanders and Italy by the middle of the thirteenth century, but although the merino sheep was destined through its introduction into Australia centuries later to become the source of the fine wool of the world, it remained during the Middle Ages second in importance to the English supply…
…The word “merino” was not used before the fifteenth century and only came into general use during the seventeenth.
The great improvement in Spanish wool took place during the fifteenth century when by careful breeding and selection the merino strain was strengthened and the famous fine white crimpy wool was established. The sheep spread widely over the peninsula and later found their way overseas. They were Spain’s main contribution to both international trade and the pastoral history of the world. In Spain the merino was the pampered favourite of kings and everything was done to meet its needs. If this had not been the case it would never have become the unique animal we know. Perennial pasturage was provided in different parts of the country and ‘walks’ established for its annual migration. A formidable organisation called the Mesta was introduced to give the merino sheep complete protection.
Spain’s arrival into the international wool market brought the merino sheep into a predominant place which it has never lost.
The Great Migrations
In Spain, travellers were fascinated by the great migrations; twice a year, in April and September, the sheep were moved four hundred miles. They travelled in detachments of ten-thousand, guarded by fifty shepherds and as many dogs, with a mayoral or chief shepherd in front. They possessed a right of pasturage over much of the kingdom… As many as twenty miles were traversed each day and the farmers and the landowners through whose lands they passed suffered considerably and complained bitterly about the damage done to their property, but this right had existed from time immemorial and could not be stopped. It was an ideal life for the merino sheep.
Several centuries later, the situation for Spanish merino had changed dramatically, and life for Spain’s merino sheep and shepherds was no longer what it once was. In recent decades, the native Spanish merino have been losing out to an International wool market derived from their exported ancestors.
This article, written in 2005, speaks about the threat posed to Spain by the rise of China’s wool industry. The paltry wages paid to Chinese wool workers ensure that it is very difficult for other nations with higher workers’ wages to compete with their prices (for both wool and processing). In 2004, for Spain, the difficulties to the wool industry were compounded by the falling prices of Spanish merino wool. In 2004, prices per kilo dropped from 70 cents to 42 cents. The 2005 article also spoke about the economic impact of international trade, and the damaging effects for wool producers of the euro’s appreciation against the dollar:
The escalation of the euro is hurting exports outside the Community framework and favoring imports from China into the European Union.
However, ten years later, on her Red Wool website, Inés Heredia spells out an inspiring mission statement that captures a less resigned mood:
Wool in Spain needs to be visible, palpable again… I propose paths, meetings, exchanges wool to keep feeding our creativity and we provide all its promises. They appear many doubts debates will open and be invited to open new avenues of research. Together we can promote a shift to the use of wool.
That word “again” recalls the golden era of Spanish merino with which we began this post, and some of the most exciting things we found online are drawing on the rich history of migratory flocks of Spanish merino. The following companies that we found online are all in some way celebrating Spain’s native merino sheep, but they are also finding ways to use their wool and to engage contemporary consumers with the country’s historic wool culture.
Eco awareness: In Spain the wool market has been suffering since the 60s due to the presence of other fibers, many of which are synthetic. From this perspective how does the dLana project propose to recover the great value of this raw material?
DLana: We know that our country was the birthplace of the Merino sheep breed, becoming a great power in world wool production of high quality during the time of the Mesta back in 1273. And now other countries are leading this sector.
With the revolutionizing entry of cotton and synthetic fibers, entering and changing the fashion industry with their properties and qualities, wool has been slowly becoming a byproduct, and sometimes even a scrap product. A focus in sheep breeding on meat and milk production has seen a decline in the quality of wool, which in turn has seen a reduction in its production volume of almost 30% during the past 20 years.
For this and many other reasons, we plan to recover some of what we have lost.
And from the dLana website:
Our wool comes from sheep bred in an extensive and nomadic livestock farming system, which implies a respectful care of animals, a happier life, a greater freedom and major benefits for the conservation of nature and our biodiversity. Our production has a seal that certifies that it comes entirely from native Spanish merino sheep.
In addition, in the case of the black merino sheep, we offer you a product that has an ecological certificate for the pastures of the sheep and which comes from an animal considered an endangered species by the national system of livestock breeds (ARCA) of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
In a similar vein, Ivory yarns offer a no-nonsense explanation of why their yarns are produced using Spanish merino:
Why Spanish Merino?
Why focus on yarns made from Spanish merinos?
Because they are of high quality,
Because they are here,
Because production here assures us that complies with European standards in the production and processing of our yarns,
Because we save on fuel,
Because we eliminate middlemen and can provide a yarn of high quality at a great price,
Because the merino breed originates from our country.
We also found this company – a “slow shop” concept, which sells plant dyes, locally produced wool, and many other products designed to make ‘”Responsible Textile Culture” a beautiful reality’.
Pure Traceable Virgin Wool
The origins of Mundo Lanar are closely linked to León and other provinces linked to the wool tradition which, despite the onslaught of the Globalization, struggle to keep alive the textile tradition in the true old style.
As well as these small businesses hoping to revive some of the sense of history and tradition bound up with Spanish merino wool, the philosphy of slowness and of retrieving value for wool from indigenous Spanish merino sheep is also appearing at an industry level. Made in Slow seeks to restore a sense of cultural heritage to fashion and according to this article, in 2015 it took the Pitti Immagine Filati trade show* in Florence by storm.
Pioneered by Alberto Díaz, the Made in Slow mission has found its proof of concept in a project called Transhumance.
Drawing on the amazing history of Merino migrations with which we began this post, Transhumance celebrates the migratory history of Spanish merino sheep, and seeks to keep it alive by creating new markets for the wool that is grown in this way:
Transhumance activity represents one of the last great migrations of herbivores across Europe and is in danger of extinction. This loss would not only affect pastoralism; also at serious risk are more than 800 years of history preserved in the transhumance paths in the form of tradition, culture, gastronomy, folklore and even a common language… Based on an innovative and sustainable approach using the fine wool [from these sheep] will contribute actively and directly to improving the living conditions of pastoralists, thus helping to preserve this activity.
It is very exciting to read about these ideas being pushed out at the top levels of the Fashion industry, and collaborations so far include projects undertaken with the very interesting IOU fashion project…
…and collaborating with fashion designer María Lafuente, whose Âme collection highlighted Spanish merino wool at Madrid Fashion Week.
The yarn used in María Lafuente’s collection – Nomada – has been produced by what seems to be a fairly major International yarn brand: Katia. Nomada yarn is described as “balls of 100% Virgin wool made in Spain from native sheep, conserving and supporting the seasonal migration of local shepherds” and a video on YouTube shows how scanning a QR code with a smartphone will enable the origins of the yarn to be revealed, so that you can see the migrating Spanish merino sheep with which we began this post.
There are many other yarns on the Katia website with low wool content and a less transparent provenance, but Nomada feels like an amazing step in the right direction towards reviving the native wool industry in Spain.
*Pitti Immagine Filati is a massive yarn trade fair
As ever, if we have got anything wrong, please let us know in the comments below!