Sunday, April 27, 2008

here sheepie sheepie

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 come 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?


Blogger Mrs J said...

What a fantastic account of your sheepy day! Its way too early for parting with coats here. The lambs are just about at 'spring' lamb stage -they have read about all the cute lamb tricks & are playing to any who cares to linger & watch! I passed 4 big Suffolk tups (rams in north england speak) on my walk this morning just chillin'!
Your class sounds really good but I don't think I will be passing that way next month BUT I am going to my FIRST fibre fest in June!

April 27, 2008 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger weebug said...

wow! the samples look lovely!

April 27, 2008 at 7:34 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

My house smells like sheep - and I have 2 fleeces (rambo) drying and a Shetland washing (that one belongs to B). The sheep we helped shear are a mixed bag; Shetlands, Cheviots, Barbados Blackbelly, Corriedale, Karakul, California Red, Rambouillet and probably a few others I forgot.

Life is good when you have fresh shorn fleeces in hand, in the sun.

April 27, 2008 at 9:40 PM  
Blogger CharlieMac said...

The Saturday before Easter was a special day for my wife of 51 years and me. We spent the day assisting with the shearing of 83 alpacas. Talk about the ram being
too old! But what fun. You can see our pics at
Our reward was the experience and two prime alpaca fleeces. Which by the way are still in open bags in our den, awaiting skirting.
Mac McFatter
Semmes, Al

April 28, 2008 at 5:58 AM  
Anonymous AlisonH said...


Oh, and, Mrs J: I once was told by a sheep farmer that they sheared in March (in Wisconsin!) because the ewes were too dense to realize that their lambs were freezing to death when they themselves were comfy warm. So the shearers would come make the moms cold so they'd go into the barns where the lambs needed to be to stay warm enough to survive.

April 28, 2008 at 1:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne said...

Oh, the other thing about shearing--, Alison's post reminded me-it's best to shear a Mommy Ewe before she gives birth. Giving birth is stressful and can produce a break in her fleece. So, the wool will be nicer if it is shorn before she has her lamb...

And, around here, it's already "warm"--temperatures are above freezing, and sometimes up to 80 degrees F! Time for a haircut!

April 28, 2008 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger Karen at ConnectingThreads said...

You're sheepy day makes want to take your spinning class...too bad it's a very long commute for me from Portland! The weather here teased us for a few days of 68 degrees, now back to 50 and rainy. Summer is a long way off for the NW.

April 28, 2008 at 10:46 PM  
Anonymous Diane said...

I love the smell of new fleece :-) and my mum has just such a relationship with her shearer.

I'm surprised you stopped at five - I can guess what it's like to want them all, especially if they're all a bit different.

April 29, 2008 at 11:37 AM  

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