Shearing Time

We celebrated another autumnal milestone this weekend: sheep shearing day. Making the event especially memorable, we welcomed back our original shearer (Lisa) after an absence of a few years. She’d serviced our flock for many years, both in Illinois and after our move to Michigan, but had retired from shearing to focus on other pursuits.

Fortunately, that retirement proved to be only temporary.  We were pleased with the job our local shearer did in her absence, but we were also very happy she was able to make the long drive up from Indiana, and again demonstrate her skill at removing fleeces from the flock. Lisa specializes in shearing high-quality wool flocks, and she works carefully to maximize the usefulness of the fleece.

My daughter and I set up a table in the garage, and “skirted” each fleece immediately after Lisa finished shearing it. Skirting involves laying the fleece out on a table, and removing any mats or vegetable material (especially burdock, strands of hay, etc.). This is essential for things to go smoothly at the fiber mill, when the raw wool is carded and processed into rovings or yarn. Fiber mills hate having to deal with poorly-skirted fleeces, so we err on the side of removing anything that might cause a problem. As you can see, we removed an awful lot of junk wool (and this isn’t even all of it):

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Lisa’s pace of work turned out to be perfect for my daughter and me. Just as we finished skirting each fleece, Lisa would have a new one ready for us. We never got backed up, and we never really had to wait for a fleece.

Although skirting fleeces isn’t the most thrilling work, I very much enjoyed spending a few hours doing it. My daughter and I got the chance to hang out together, working on this joint project, and were able to chat about all kinds of things. It’s the sort of natural human / family connectivity that used to be so much more common, before the ubiquity of electronic distractions.

One especially interesting aspect of Icelandic sheep is the dizzying variety of colors and patterns that’s possible in a single flock. Ours are black, morrit (brown), gray, and white. Most of our individual sheep have mixes of different colors; while we do our best to pack the fleeces separately by color, so the fiber mill can produce different naturally colored sets of rovings for us, the separation isn’t perfect.

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We collected 24 fleeces from our flock of 26. We decided to leave the two oldest sheep unshorn, so they’ll have an easier time staying warm this winter. Dilemma, our oldest ram, will be butchered after this breeding season — just short of his tenth birthday. Pachelbelle, the last animal on our farm to have made the move from Illinois, (ten years ago this month!) turns eleven in the spring. That will be her last shot at lambing; we will take her to the butcher late next summer if she has a lamb, and late next spring if she does not.

After shearing was complete, we turned the whole flock loose in the back yard. It’s some of the best grass left on the property (and they soon discovered the windfall pears in the side yard as well).

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Well … we turned almost the whole flock loose immediately after shearing. Our younger ram remained behind, because he needed some additional work: his horns were growing against his face, and needed to be trimmed. Lisa secured him with two halters (much like securing a motorcycle in the back of a pickup truck), and then we used PVC-cutting wire to saw through each horn. The wire not only allows access to a tight space that’s impossible to reach with a saw, it can also generate enough friction heat to cauterize at least some of the blood flow. (There are no nerves in the horns, so this is a painless process for the sheep.)

As it turns out, his right side had no blood flow at all. The left side had some blood, which we quickly got bandaged. He’s the huge, mostly-black sheep on the far left. If you look closely at the left horn, you’ll notice we secured the bandage with duct tape. Yes indeed … duct tape really is the farmer’s best friend.

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This afternoon, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer made the drive up to the fiber mill; it’s about two hours north of here. She took all of this fall’s wool, and picked up the processed rovings from last year’s fleeces.

She got home this evening with the back of our minivan full of bags of different color rovings. The bags are tied closed, but I managed to pull out a small sample of black, so you can see what it looks like.

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And so the cycle continues …

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