Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Shearing Day!

Suzy at a historic site with hand shears
Scout, our kitten, is on vacation, so today's blog is being written by me, FiberWild's sheep expert, Suzy the Shepherdess. And the topic:  Shearing Day!

Most of the time raising sheep is a rather idyllic venture - except on Shearing Day.  Shearing Day is a day of hard work filled with sweat, dirt, lanolin and blood (the blood was all mine - the sheep are fine!).

Sheep shearing is always done in the spring, and the goal is to shear them about two or three weeks before they lamb.  Crop farmers lamb in February and March so that lambing and caring for any bottle lambs will be completely done before planting begins, but since I don't do any farming I schedule my due date for April or May.

Sheep shearer using electric shears
Spring shearing is best for the comfort of the sheep.  Shepherdess' want their thick winter coats removed before the hot summer months, but underneath all that wool is pale pink skin and they can get sunburns, so they need to have enough wool grown back before the start of summer to protect them from sunburn.  Spring shearing is also better for the lambs.  Lambs are, . . .  well, . . .  not very smart.  If a ewe (the mommy sheep) is in full fleece a hungry lamb will sometimes suck on a hunk of wool instead of nursing on a teat.  When the ewe is freshly sheared the lambs have a lot less trouble looking for their lunch.

I've been to sheep shearing school and used to shear my own sheep in the early years when I had just five, but now that my flock is over 30 sheep I hire a professional sheep shearer.    

I use hand shears while demonstrating sheep shearing at historic sites, but today professional sheep shearers use electric shears.  It is amazingly fast and fascinating to watch.  My sheep shearer takes about four minutes to shear a sheep.  The current World Record is 38 seconds.  It takes me about an hour per sheep - another reason why I don't shear my own!

Laying out the pelts in the upper barn
I'm often asked if it hurts the sheep, and the truth is that is doesn't hurt any more than it hurts you when you get a haircut.  My favorite shearing quote is from Tasha Tudor in Tasha Tudor's Heirloom Crafts, "It doesn't hurt a bit, but they are bothered by the indignity."  The shearing starts with them sitting on their butt, which is an unnatural position for them and they don't like it.  But I like to say that the sheep only have one bad day each year, and wouldn't you like to say that you had only one bad day each year!

After each sheep is sheared I take the sheep from the shearer and I trim their hooves.  Like your fingernails, sheep hooves grow continuously and need to be trimmed.  It also gives me a chance to give each sheep an inspection.  Maggots, fungus and unhealed wounds can go completely unnoticed under five to six inches of thick wool.  I once had a sheep with maggots (Gross!  And let me say it again - GROSS!), but that's been about 15 years ago and I haven't found any hidden health problems since then.  But still, it's always good to check.

Suzy trimming hooves
When I'm done I release the sheep to run around in the barn.  They don't talk, but if they did they would yell "Yippee!" as they run and jump like naked toddlers.  There is no doubt that they feel great once all that wool is removed.

As each sheep is sheared the fleece is loaded into a wheel barrel and taken up to the upper part of my barn where they are laid out like sections in a giant sheep-shaped crazy quilt.  The fleeces dry ('cuz they're sweaty), and wait to be skirted, washed, carded and spun into yarn.

The sheep are naked and happy - but we are not.  We are dirty, as you would expect, but we are also covered in lanolin.  Lanolin is a natural oil the sheep produce.  It is a wonderful skin softener and conditioner, and you'll find that most of your cosmetics and lotions contain lanolin.  So while you might think it would be nice to be covered in lanolin, this is not pure lanolin but lanolin mixed with dirt and manure.  My hands are black and greasy and my clothes are a shade darker and look wet from the grease.  Fortunately lanolin washes off easily with soap and hot water.   

Can you see the "stripes" from the electric shears?
As for the blood?  This year it was all mine.  I cut a deep gash when I put my thumb in the wrong place while I was trimming hooves.  Fortunately I trim the hooves after the sheep are sheared, so none of the gorgeous wool was stained with blood!  Lanolin is naturally antiseptic, good for the sheep when they get scratches from thistle in the pasture, and also good for the shepherdess who gets an ugly gash while trimming hooves. 

Now that the shearing is done it's time for the next (and most rewarding!) part of the sheep year: lots of lambs!

Check out more photos of Suzy's sheep, and Suzy the Shepherdess yarn, patterns, and kits, including the Shepherdess Shawl pattern, Shepherd's Hat pattern and kit, Stockton Socks kit, Pennsylvania Mittens kit, and Shepherdess Wristlet kit.

Happy Shearing . . . . Suzy the Shepherdess

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