Alpaca Wool vs Merino Sheep Wool: What’s The Difference?

merino wool sheep

My favorite things to wear hiking are my merino wool socks and shirts. I feel like they’re the perfect attire for outdoor adventures, as well as travel.

But not everyone can wear merino wool because some people are allergic to it.

So when I recently learned about alpaca wool, I was excited to see if it’s a good alternative to merino sheep wool.

If you’re curious about this new wool fiber, then keep reading to learn what I found about about how these two fabrics differ from each other.

Texture

Compared to merino sheep’s wool, alpaca wool definitely has a softer texture. 

Some people say that alpaca wool feels like cashmere to the touch, which means that is feels really, really soft.

So, does it really feel like cashmere? It depends.

What it depends on is the micron measurement of the alpaca fiber. And the softest micron measurement of alpaca wool is 16-18 micron fleece.

If you get some alpaca wool at 16 to 18 micron measurement range, then you’re getting softest there is. This micron range is classified as “Royal Alpaca.”

Here’s a quick look at the alpaca fiber classification by micron measurement, according to Alpacas of Montana:

Royal Alpaca < 18 microns
Super Fine / Baby Alpaca < 20 microns
Fine < 25 microns
Medium < 30 microns
Strong 30 microns +

And used for felting, the “mixed fibers” classification is made up of shorter fibers measuring in at more than 32 microns.

Warmth

One of the more surprising things about alpaca wool is that it is warmer than merino sheep wool. Here’s why:

  • sheep’s wool fibers contains pockets of air
  • alpaca wool fibers are completely hollow

So, both types of fibers allow air to permeate the surface so that it gets trapped inside, which gives you a warm wearing experience.

But the extra hollow space in the alpaca wool fiber offers a greater thermal capacity and allows for more warm air to fill, which means extra warmth over its sheep’s wool counterpart.

But don’t take my word for it, the people at Yocum-McCall Testing Laboratories discovered the following:

One study showed that if worn in a 0 degree F environment, alpaca would give a 50 degree F comfort range. Sheep’s wool would provide a 30 degree F comfort range in the same environment.

Weight

If you’re carrying around some clothing in a backpack, then you’re going to want to go with the most lightweight stuff as possible.

And guess what?

Alpaca wool is more lightweight than merino wool. 

That’s due to the hollow fibers of the alpaca wool. 

Hypoallergenic?

If you’re like me, then you know someone who is allergic to wool, and therefor cannot wear merino wool clothing.

That’s often due to the presence of lanolin in the sheep’s wool, which irritates the skin of some people.

But what about alpaca wool?

Alpaca wool doesn’t have any lanolin in it, which means it is considered hypoallergenic.

Alpaca is also less likely to cause itching. Sheep’s wool fur has tiny scales along the edges, whereas alpaca fiber is more smooth.

The outside of each strand of sheep’s wool has tiny, microscopic scales along the length of the strand. When garments made with wool are worn next to the skin, these scales catch the surface of the skin and cause some wool to feel prickly. Strands of alpaca fiber are smooth and therefore feel less prickly or itchy next to the skin. Source

So, if you know anyone who is allergic to wool, then tell them about alpaca wool and how it might be a good substitute for merino wool for them.

Moisture Wicking?

If you’re looking into these fabrics for your outdoor adventures, then you’re likely going to be getting sweaty while wearing the clothing.

That means that moisture wicking properties are important – so how do these two compare?

Alpaca wool has higher moisture wicking properties than merino sheep wool.

Actually, alpaca wool is considered to be water repellant since it keeps water off the skin. This is a result of those hollow fibers trapping more heat and naturally pushing away water.

Alpaca does not absorb water into the hair, rather it sheets it off. This factor allows for alpaca to make wonderful outwear and it is why when caught in the rain an alpaca cloth will not smell. Also, because of its water resistance, alpaca is not subject to mold and mildew under normal conditions. Source

What about merino sheep wool? Unfortunately, if you’ve ever sweated in a merino wool shirt, then you already know that it holds some moisture. 

In fact, merino wool can absorb up to 50% of its weight in moisture!  But after this there is a saturation point and the sweat can sit next to skin, increasing discomfort, odor and likelihood of blisters and chafing out on the trail.

Cost

Alpaca wool is more expensive than merino sheep wool, but if you’re going to choose a wool, merino seems to be the best of the bunch.

If you can afford cashmere, mohair, or Alpaca wool long johns, go for it.

Otherwise, Merino wool is the best of the sheep wools. Next to our skin, it is soft, stretchy, supple, and comfy. Source

Summary

Though both alpaca wool and merino sheep wool are both great fibers for outdoor clothing, there is one clear winner here – the alpaca wool.

Alpaca wool beats merino wool in every category that counts.

It’s hypoallergenic, it’s softer, it keeps you warmer, it’s more lightweight, and it has better moisture wicking properties. Plus, like merino wool, its ultra durable.

And though I didn’t mention it above, alpaca wool is actually pill resistant, which is a problem that I have with my merino wool sweaters. 

I’ve just become a convert to alpaca wool, how about you?

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