My favorite part of shearing day is the joy of a newly sheared sheep. The look on their faces as they step off the shearing floor is so priceless. Imagine being 15 to 20 pounds lighter in an instant. They seem to forget how to walk then take off bouncing and hopping like lambs to join their friends at the ‘salad bar’ for breakfast.
There are many viewpoints about whether sheep should be sheared- is it humane? We believe there are many reasons to shear sheep besides being able to work with their beautiful fleeces. Sheared sheep are less prone to health problems such as fly strike, wool blindness and other equally distressing issues that a sheep should not have to endure. Imagine not washing or combing your own hair for over a year- that alone makes me glad they get that haircut!
Our sheep’s shearing day comfort is our utmost concern and there are many things that contribute to the calmness of shearing day.
Since sheep do like to be sneaky little stinkers, having the sheep locked up in the barn the night before is crucial. Otherwise you can be assured of day at the races with too much time convincing them to go inside. That is not great for keeping any of the sheeps’ people from pulling their own hair out. (Wouldn’t it be nice though if we COULD shave and lose a quick 15 pounds or so?)
The sheep spend the night inside and while we do offer them water, they are not fed hay or grain that night. Shearing is not very comfortable if they have a big meal before hand. As soon as they have a haircut, they happily head out for a breakfast salad.
The most important part of shearing day is an excellent shearer who is kind to our sheep and takes his time. He shows up early in the morning clippers in hand, ready for another big day. The shearing floor (several sheets of thick plywood that is not too slick) is set up just outside the sheep’s gate in the barn. One sheep at a time is carefully handed out to the shearer and the next sheep waits inside.
The actual shearing is over quickly. The sheep is gently set on its hinder, cradled by the shearer and the clippers start to hum. Our sheep are used to shearing so are very calm, allowing shearing to be completed in less than 5 minutes. A young sheep may not be so happy to be sheared. They tend to struggle but a good shearer takes the extra time to create a good experience for the sheep.
The sheep is then handed to my hubby. He holds the sheep while I administer vaccines, wormer and check feet and horns to be sure they are trimmed properly.
Another big job on shearing day is scooping up fleeces. The wonderful piles of wooly fluff are picked up after discarding very dirty wool, belly and neck wool. The fleece is marked with the sheeps’ name and stored in an unclosed bag, allowing the fleece to ‘breathe’ until it is sorted completely.
Our day begins very early and is wrapped up early evening. We take a break around noon for a good lunch. We only see our shearer in the spring so we have lots to catch up on. His travels are fascinating and we learn a lot about sheep from him.
This is shearing day at our farm. Just as there are many sheep farms, there are just as many ways to handle a shearing day. What works for one farm may not work for another, but the basics are the same.
Now our sheep are ready for another summer spent happily grazing their days away – until next year when we gather them up and shear their beautiful fleeces all over again.
Jim & Sandy Ryan operate Homested Wool & Gift Farm located in Wisconsin.
Their slogan: “Animal friendly wool?? You bet!”. You can find their wool, yarn and other items on Etsy.
My fifth birthday was quickly approaching. He kept calling them “knitting needles.” Some were brown and tan. Others, gray, black and very long. But the only needles I knew were the ones from the Dr.’s office which hurt.
Ah, Grandpap was my hero! What fond memories I have. My family called me a toe-head who was energetic, highly motivated and self-driven. For several years, I had watched Grandpap sit by the hour and move those hands so fast using roving and yarn from the sheep he raised on the farm. Being the eager little kid who always was curious and wanting to learn new things, I begged him to teach me to knit. It was one of those eye opening moments. He looked at me and just smiled in delight.
He grew up in Germany where all the boys and girls in elementary school were taught to knit as part of the normal curriculum. “Well,” he said. “I learned to knit when I was a boy so there’s no reason you shouldn’t learn how to do it too. It’s something that’ll help you and that you can do for the rest of your life. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. So, let’s go do some whittling!”
At the time, I obviously didn’t get the full gist of what he was saying — five year olds aren’t fully aware of stereotypes. I just knew Grandpap could do no wrong in my eyes. If he taught me how to milk cows, ‘slop’ the pigs, herd sheep, gather eggs and pull weeds, then knitting was no different.
Whittling? It all started to make sense. Grandpap whittled a lot. But Grandma said I was too young to be playing with a knife. I have vague memories of watching him whittle but never paid too much attention to it. Wow! When he said, “Let’s go do some whittling,” it all clicked!!!! All that time he was making his own wooden knitting needles. Not from dowels, but from wood, sticks, branches, etc. I still have that vivid image of us going to look for some wood to make me my own pair of knitting needles. He said he would have to make them bigger than his so that I could learn better. Since, I wanted to have the same ones which he had, I threw a little temper tantrum…..yuk! He was so loving and patient. “You’ll understand some day but it’ll be harder for you to wrap that sheep hair around the needle if it is too small.” And right he was!
Initially, Grandpap taught me to knit using the “throw” or English technique with very large needles in order to learn the mechanics and physics of knitting. Shortly, thereafter, I switched to Continental knitting so I could go “as fast as he could.” I remember the thrill of staying up late night after night practicing the long tail cast on for hours. I now laugh whenever I think of how frayed that precious yarn became after unraveling for the 10th time.
Funny. I could relate to “sheep hair” as a kid. Roving and wool as more abstract terms came later. I had watched Grandma clean, card and spin the ‘sheep hair’ many times but it wasn’t all that exciting to me as a kid. Now I long for those peaceful, loving moments spent with two wonderful people. Working with nature. Watching the lambs grow to adulthood. Shearing. Preparing the wool. Then using it to complete a garment to wear.
Fifty six years later I am still passionately knitting every day. I’ve weathered through some of those awkward years of being teased as a young man knitting. That stopped rather quickly after the bullies learned that I could do other “guy” things. Eventually, some of them asked me to teach them. Be true to yourself!
I’ve gone through the gamut of knitting throughout the years. Except for lace. Over the past several months, I’ve finally decided to go for it. Now I’m addicted to it. I didn’t know any better when I learned to knit and ended up cutting my own hair and trying to spin it. Guess I just figured that if it can be done with sheep hair then any hair will do! Sadly, though, I must say that after repeated attempts at learning to spin, I have never been able to do it. And it bugs me trying to figure out why! It looks so simple and smooth. Grandpap used to say, “Now just don’t worry about it. God will give you other gifts down the road.” How right he was.
It feels like Elizabeth Zimmerman and I were brother and sister. Having said that, “Knit on!”