Notes from Windward: #71

Shearing Dolly

an annual rite begins


     One of the tasks associated with raising sheep is the annual shearing. It's something that I look forward to because harvesting the wool is something that shepherds have been doing every spring for thousands of years.

     The incredible insulation that wool provides keeps the sheep warm in winter, but as the temperatures warm up, the sheep start to overheat. A few days back, Dolly had lost track of her lamb and was running around calling out loudly. She'd run up to me, panting, with a look that conveyed that she just knew that I'd done something with that lamb, and she wanted it back right away! I figured that her lamb was probably just off playing with another of the lambs, which turned out to be true, but it made the point that it was time for her to get rid of her woolly winter coat.

Dolly in the shearing pen

     We have a special "catching pen" built into the summer pasture, and Andrew was able to lure Dolly and her lamb into the pen with a bit of grain‒no matter how lush the grass is, grain gets their attention. Dolly is over ten years old, and I wanted her to go first in order to ensure that she wasn't at risk of heat prostration the next time the weather takes a turn for the warmer.

the way professional shearers work
     The floor of the catch pen is covered with a couple sheets of OSB, and I spread a plastic tarp over that to help keep the wool as clean as practical since organic matter mixed in with the wool has to be removed before it can be spun. Another advantage of using the plastic tarp is that it's slippery surface makes it difficult for a sheep to get their footing. So long as they're on their side, they're pretty helpless‒which doesn't prevent them from windmilling their feet when they get excited.

     Basically, there are three ways that sheep are sheared. Commercial shearing involves using a 1/2 horse power electric motor that drives an articulated shaft to power a hand piece. That's the machine that the pros down in New Zealand use to shear a full grown ewe in three minutes. It's a scary piece of equipment that takes a good deal of practice to learn how to use effectively. With as few sheep as we have, it hardly makes sense to even try that heavy-duty a rig.

an electric hand held shear
     The second way involves an electrically powered hand-shear that's similar to the electric clippers that a barber uses to cut a man's hair, only four or five times larger. Like the commercial shear, it takes a lot of practice to learn to use it efficiently. Even more problematic, keeping the cutters and combs sharp is an art form, and without access to special built sharpening devices, they're a challenge to use. I don't doubt that someone with more skill than I have can do good work with them, but again, I'm caught in the trap of not doing enough sheep to be able to master the process.

a traditional hand shear

      As a result, I stick to using a traditional hand shear, the sort of tool that shepherds have been using for thousands of years. Instead of the three minutes it takes a professional to shear a fleece, I take a leisurely hour or more, but that's alright with me. My usual practice is to do one sheep a day starting around four in the afternoon. That way, when the work is done, it's a good time to call the day a wrap, and head for the shower to wash off the lanolin and sheep smell.

Dolly's lamb keeps a eye on her mom

      Our usual practice is to "double team" the sheep being sheared. While I'm taking the wool off one snip at a time, the other person holds and caresses the sheep's head; as long as the sheep can't lift its head, it's not going anywhere. The sheep stays calm, the shearing goes smoothly, and everyone walks away as friends.

Kotomi comforting Dolly

     Another advantage to this sort of hand shearing is the lack of "second cuts." When a power shear cuts through the wool, a small portion of the blade overlaps the previous cut. That generates little snippets of wool about a sixteenth of an inch long. When these are incorporated into yarn, and the yarn is woven into a fabric, those little snippets of wool can stick out of the yarn and poke your skin. That's the reason why many wool fabrics feel itchy on the skin.

Dolly's wool
     When cutting by hand, the wool is brushed away from the cut after each snip. The result is long fibers that will lay smoothly on the skin.

     Dolly's skin is delicate and thin, and in shearing her I have to be careful not to lift the skin into the path of the shears. By going slow and taking care, I was able to finish without more than a tiny nick or two, much to Dolly's relief.

     This is her tenth shearing, so she pretty much knows what's going on, but it must be a scary experience none the less. Kotomi's kind and gentle hands went a long way towards helping Dolly undergo another shearing with as little stress as possible. With warm weather just around the corner, she'll be good-to-go for another year.

Dolly ready for summer

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71