It’s that time of year, with lambs just around the corner. The great wooly beasts are corralled in the corner of the barn, waiting for the approaching rumble of Chris’ truck to signal the beginning of shearing season. The enormous sacks for the wool are hauled from the blue truck’s back end and set up on a stand, the cables are hooked securely out of sheep reach, and the whir of the double-bladed shears begins.
I’ve witnessed a variety of shearings over the years. One involved a llama, which had to be tied with the two front legs stretched one direction and the back two stretched another. One fellow’s sole responsibility was to hold to the head with a towel (apparently to retain the notorious llama spit). But sheep have the unique characteristic of becoming amazingly docile when set back on their rump—at least most of the time.
There still is the occasional wriggler and squiggler and kicking of legs, but this doesn’t seem to faze Chris, who wields the shears with deftness only years of experience can bring. First a long, blind cut right up the sheep’s neck with her head stretched back, and then the coat is gracefully pealed away to reveal a slightly pink and rather pregnant creature below.
The tradition of shearing sheep for their wool is probably older than recorded history. Originally, this was accomplished using hand clippers with a curved handle that acts as a spring to bring the two teeth apart after each cut. Some cultures continue to use this practice, which is valued by spinners for producing fibers without the dreaded “second cut”—e.g. short lengths of fibers created by the electric shears going back to clean up an area on the sheep. The tedium of hand clipping a fleece maintains fibers of equal, long length, which are supposedly less likely to pill when made into garments.
Shearing sheep in the spring is also part of the animal’s health maintenance. The wool grown all summer and autumn keeps them warm and dry through the winter. But this same wool can become soiled during lambing and makes it difficult for the little lambs to find their mother’s udder when still wobbly and new to the world. All clipped and pretty, the mothers are ready for proper care of their lambs and the warmth of the coming springtime.
Some ancient varieties of sheep would shed their coats (and there are a few heritage breeds that still do), which meant that harvesting the wool crop included copious amounts of walking to pick tufts from thorn and briar growing in the pastures. Shearing meant that more of the crop stayed with the farmer (and less with the birds for nests)—a selection process not unlike the story behind early grains. While wild grain seeds fall to the ground in autumn to replant, humans selected grains that held their seed heads tight because these were far easier to harvest methodically and therefore were the genetics planted in the spring.
There was a time when saving all that wool was vitally important. During the Civil War, the Merino breed of sheep was favored for is extra layers of skin around the neck that folded and flopped over the brisket. While it was not the most tidy-looking sheep, more skin meant more wool for soldiers’ uniforms. And during medieval times, when the Bubonic Plague left Europe with a little more than half its previous population, the labor shortage was compensated by turning the land from grain production to pastures for sheep. Not only did it require fewer farmers to tend a flock of sheep than fields of wheat or barley, but it was also a time when wool was king.
From long trailing gown to tapestries, most households spent more on fabrics yearly than any other commodity (including food!) in medieval times. England had a bustling trade of exporting raw wool to Flanders (now present-day Belgium), where early mills turned the fibers into everything from sumptuous trappings for castle and hall to everyday cloth for those who worked. It was a lord’s responsibility to give (as partial payment of services) a new set of clothes to each of his servants yearly.
Unfortunately, wool is not held in as nearly high esteem as it was in days past. Synthetics, polar fleece, and other fibers entice us more than traditional and often itchy wool—even though wool can be saturated up to 30% with water and still be insulative. It also seems a terrible paradox that farmers should receive pittance for their wool (some sheep raisers consider it a bother and an expense rather than a valued crop) and yet wool garments should be so expensive! Someday, we’ll find a more creative way to use our fleece than to sell most of it to the shearer to pay for his services. I even hear that in Australia, they have figured a way to make house insulation using wool that has a wonderful R-value. It would also be a very green product!
In the meantime, our ewe Mascara is let back up onto her feet after having her beautiful 10-pound coat unceremoniously shorn from her back. She staggers a moment, shakes herself, baas, and then runs back to her friends through the open gate. Shearing is yet another sign on the farm that the year is turning towards spring. Soon there will be frolicking lambs, baby chicks, little seedlings, and the world will break from the gray and white and once again be green.
Kara wraps her arms around Adelaide and Chris sets her down on her rump. The shears buzz, and Mascara’s coat is hauled up the ladder and stuffed into the great burlap sack with the others. It’s hard, rough work, and Chris is bent over near double most of the day. Mom and Kara work quickly to catch sheep or lead sheep to the second pen, whisking freed coats to the side and out of the way. Like many tasks in farming, it carries a rhythm and orchestration of movement and sound, with little need for talk.
In the end, two great bags filled with wool are stuffed into the back end of Chris’ blue truck, and everyone feels that sitting down is a marvelous idea. The sheep, which look hilariously like goats at the moment, are happy the ordeal is over, and the humans are glad to come warm themselves by the wood stove. The day-long affair is complete, marking a new phase in the shepherding season. Spring is coming, the days are lengthening, the snow is dripping, and the sheep are shorn. See you down at the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com