Every year, I get the phone call from my friend, a retired geography professor. "Hey, the shearer's coming in a week. Usually on a weekday. At some inconvenient time. Can you come?" And year after year, I'm there...driving just 7? miles and into an oasis of rural springtime. It's hard to imagine skipping it! First, there's the company.
This man's farm is no normal farm. It's like a big bunch of household pets...a horse, two cows, two enormous labrador retrievers, geese, and 18 sheep-- right down to the sign at the front gate, that says:Drive with Caution. Canadian Geese Nesting.
You can imagine the geese flying in, making reservations, grabbing the keys and saying to the farmer, "Shhh! We're making babies over here!"
Of course, I was there for the sheep. The flock fluctuates, but it's a Romney cross flock. The other breeds in the mix are something like (put your hand over your mouth to mumble this) Suffolk/Polypay/Dorset/Border Leicester/something else the cat drug in. Whatever, the fleeces are luscious. Long stapled rich colors of grays, browns, and even a white one or two.
Before being shorn, the sheep look scruffy, like teenage boys with longish hair who are trying to grow goatees. Also, quite disgruntled, because they've all been herded into the horse's stall for one morning and they're resentful. (again, like some teenagers?)
Gerald, the shearer, set to work. I found out this year that Gerald has been shearing this particular flock since 1986...that's a long term relationship! The day is full of interesting conversation. I helped open and close some gates, and I scooped up a lot of fleece. Too much fleece.
"Colored" or "Black" fleece is only of value to handspinners. So even though these fleeces are stellar, they aren't worth anything in the commercial wool pool. The farmer is delighted to gift me some. The shearer will take whatever's left to sell online. This year, we saved 3 fleeces for the farmer's adult daughter, a beginning spinner. I'd planned to co
me home with 2 fleeces, one white and one black. I brought presents...jars of homemade plum port and blackberry brandy jams. I brought two chapter drafts from my forthcoming book about the shearing last year for the farmer and the shearer to read. Then, somehow, 5 fleeces followed me home!
Romney fleeces aren't petite. We're talking about 50 lbs of wool. I was stunned as I carried the pillowcases full of wool to my car. I just hadn't realized what was happening. As the shearer finishes a "haircut", he says, "This is a nice one" and I dart in, check out the staple length, crimp and color, say nope or yes. Nope means it goes in the shearer's enormous plastic wool bag. If it's yes, I grab an pillow case, stuff it in--largely unskirted--while rushing to get it and myself off the shearing board before the next sheep gets dragged in. Sheep hate leaving their buddies and are often skittish. It's not good to be standing, grabbing wool on the shearing board...even though they settle down the minute the barbering starts. Think about a toddler at the barber. You've got it. Sheep require coaxing at first, but settle right down, mesmerized, as the trimming begins. Anyhow, amidst the darting, I lost count of the fleece total. Oops.
This farmer treats all the sheep as beloved pets. Here the shearer is shearing a ram that used to be enormous. You can read about his fleece in years past here
. Sadly, Mr. Ram has gotten on in age. There were no lambs this year. He'd lost weight (hard to imagine when you see his size) and underneath his lighter gray, coarser fleece, he looked bony and arthritic. The shearer acted more as a podiatrist and less like he was giving a pedicure for poor Mr. Ram's hooves. You can see shots of the "pedicure" option here.
After he was shorn, the shearer and I had a heart to heart with the farmer about getting a new ram. Later, I emailed him another Romney breeder's contact information. Mr. Ram (senior), and one of his sons were obviously no longer up to the task.
Wednesday evening, I gave one fleece away to a friend. On Thursday morning, I went ahead and skirted 4 fleeces. One white, 4 "colored"...roughly 40 lbs of wool. By the time I'd skirted all four and packaged up the 3 fleeces that I'm sending away to be processed, I was quivering with fatigue. Turns out that the sleeping bag stuff bag technique, the crouching and sorting out sheep poop, and shlepping around of 40 lbs of wool by oneself can be exhausting. Either that, or I'm just past it, like the ram!
I'm saving a fleece and a bit for teaching my workshop
in May. (Are you signed up yet!?) On Friday, the professor helped me carry two well-labelled boxes to the post office. 27 pounds of wool (too much to cope with at home just now) were shipped off!
On Saturday, I celebrated by sitting in the sunshine on my back porch. I spun some sample skeins in the grease, straight from the locks of wool. It spun--like warm butter spreads on bread--as I soaked up the sun. There is really nothing quite like freshly shorn fleece! (stinky, but delicious, like say, a good blue cheese!)
Been to a good shearing lately? Can you smell the sheepy parfum from here?