Shearing a lot of Shetlands

posted in: Sheep, Sheep: Shetland, Wool | 5

Wow! I get to write a blog post! I greatly enjoy doing them, and it’s been a while because I’ve been (1) on the road and/or (2) beset by a lack of ability to connect to the internet. Item 1 has been temporarily resolved. We're still working on item 2.

The Orkney/Shetland posts are not complete—we were just about to visit with some North Ronaldsay sheep—and will continue, but a couple of digressions will intervene. Between March 8 and April 7, I was

  • in Montana to help with shearing of a large Shetland flock;
  • in Washington to teach at the Explore 4 Spring Retreat;
  • home briefly to wash and pack wool and prepare handouts and presentations; and then
  • in Iowa to give two talks for the Iowa Federation of Handweavers and Spinners and a workshop for the Northeast Iowa Weavers and Spinners Guild (post here about the Iowa Federation gathering, with pictures of some vendors with fiber that I saw on a quick run-through and I meant to get back and buy but it was gone by the time I had a chance—good for the vendors!).

Not much writing time in there.

Here, though, are some photos and comments on the trip to Montana.

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I arrived in time for day two of the four days of shearing. The first order of business on that day was bringing in the group of sheep that we would shear. There’s a lot of landscape on the Hilger Hereford Ranch, which is one of the oldest ranches in Montana and operates under a conservation program. The sheep have a primary job of weed control and do their work in several flocks. The wool crop becomes lovely Elemental Affects yarns under the careful attention of Jeane deCoster. I was at the ranch thanks to Jeane’s introduction and at the invitation of rancher Catherine Campbell. (Catherine doesn’t sell individual fleeces.)

See the sheep? Those dots in the distance were the wethers (castrated males, kept for weed-eating and fleece) and lambs. They needed to be rounded up and brought into the corrals.

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Off to bring them back: Denis on the four-wheeler, with Emma riding on the back. There are a lot of both herding and guardian dogs at the ranch. Emma is the herding dog who is most avid.

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I’d show you some photos of what guardian dogs do during shearing (mostly sleep), but I seem to need to download more software and fix some problems with iPhoto. It won’t export any images right now. Computers have been problematic lately.

Back to sheep-gathering. We humans spread out to form a psychological barrier to keep the flock from going past where they needed to be. The goal was to funnel them into the corral, which wouldn’t work if they took off for the mountains in the other direction.

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Here they come!

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Getting closer. Emma and Denis keeping them in line and moving: fast enough but not too fast.

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Human fencing moved deliberately and slowly closer to push the sheep into the corral. That beige structure was the temporary shelter used for storing the fleece between shearing and bagging.

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Emma making sure everybody goes where they’re supposed to.

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Job done, but not at ease. Emma was always on duty!

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Here are the sheep in that group ready to be shorn. What a wonderful array of colors and textures!

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Always two shearers, often three. Note Emma’s posture. The sheep come in from the back of left of this photo, and leave through a door just behind the two shearers working here. There’s another door into this barn, located where I was standing when I took the photo. It leads to where the fleeces are graded and sorted. It also leads to The Outside World (without fencing).

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Shorn sheep!

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While this day of shearing was bright and clear, predictions called for rain on the next day. So a good part of the afternoon was spent with part of the crew thinking through how to keep the sheep dry. And the rest of us, but most importantly the sheep. The plan was to put a bunch of sheep into that gray building at the back left, and create enough shelter for them to be moved into a section of the red barn, and then into a chute, and then to the shearers’ area. The timbers extending from the barn in this photo were erected temporarily to hold a tarp that would keep the wool dry while it was being processed post-shearing. That’s a grading/skirting table in the front of the image, and the green structure behind held two more grading/skirting tables that became the primary working area when the weather shifted.

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The weather certainly did shift. This was the morning of the third day (my second day). (While we’re here, look at the timbers from which that barn is constructed. Wow.)

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This is how the sheep stayed dry enough while moving from the gray building into the barn where the shearing took place.

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Here’s a bunch in the holding area in the red barn, awaiting the next step.

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And four sheep in the chute, up next for shearing. Each sheep has an identifying number, and a record card has been printed out for every sheep before it reaches this point. While the sheep are in the chute, the cards are pulled and each card goes on a clipboard by the shearer who works on the sheep, and then accompanies the fleece to the grading area.

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On duty, regardless of weather.

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After I’d spent a bunch of time in the grading area, learning Jeane’s system and getting an idea of the flow, I began to learn how to “throw” fleeces. The job starts with assisting the shearer, if he wants assistance. Some don’t, but a helper can gently move the fleece out of the way so the lines that the shears follow can be seen and accessed more easily. It’s important never to tug on the wool: that pulls the skin up and makes it vulnerable to being cut. It’s also important to remember that the mechanical shears can damage the shearer and the assistant as well, and to keep fingers well clear of their blades.

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Gathering up a fresh fleece: I learned two systems for grabbing hold of it. HOW you do this is important, because. . . .

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. . . the goal is to be able to throw it—to flip it open and spread it out, tips upward, on the skirting/grading table, all in one piece as it came off the sheep and ready for the next step. On each fleece, you get ONE try at throwing it correctly.

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(Many thanks to Sue for the pictures that include me!)

At this stage, we evaluated the fleeces. We also marked the cards with the state of the fleece and comments. This is an adult ewe who is six years old (see the notes at the bottom, in addition to her birth date). She has had very good fleeces every year. The “keep forever!” is an unusual comment.

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This year's assessment will get into the database and print out on next year's card.

If fleeces were not of high enough quality for either mill processing or handspinning (for any number of reasons, mostly breaks or cotting), they went into a bin to go to a felter. 

Those that were sound—most of them—went to the beige structure and were classified by color. Blacks are at the back. Whites are at the front. Gray tones are on the right, brown tones on the left, going from dark at the back to light at the front.

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This was a mid-brown bin.

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Obviously, the sheep don’t grown their wool in a consistent set of specified colors. There were a lot of judgment calls about which bin to put any given fleece into. Jeane also shifted some fleeces around so she would get the tonal balances right in the batches of wool that would come to her from the mill. It’s all intuitive at this point.

Then we hand-packed wool from the various bins into bales. It’s pretty amazing how much wool you can cram into one of these containers if you work systematically and keep at it. Each bale was a specific color run. The goal is to pack evenly and fully: no wrinkles or gaps or unfilled corners.

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Ah. On the rainy day, one wether escaped past the shearers and made his way out into the Great Beyond, through the open door that was the exit for the fleeces. He made it past several people and I was just coming toward the door to retrieve a fleece when he came pelting toward me. I tried to grab him, and found that I was briefly riding him and then I was sitting on my butt in the mud and he was off into the open.

It took about twenty minutes to get him back into the shearing area, and he went straight into the chute (which at that point didn’t have any other sheep in it). He wasn’t happy.

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But his fleece was beautiful, and Jeane sent it home with me as a souvenir.

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After the final day of shearing, the stuffed bags of wool—about 1200 pounds—got loaded into the stock trailer for their trip to the mill. That’s Jeane, making sure everything is under control.

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We offloaded the bales at the mill, where they’ll be washed. 

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The owners had just cleared and organized the space, and then we went and filled it all up with wool.

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We had a great visit with Ed and Sue James, who own the mill. They make quilt batts and pillows and all sorts of things. I left wanting a futon made of wool. (Yes, Small Wonders, at that link, uses Sugar Loaf mill’s processing for its futons.)

Then it was time for me to leave Montana and go to Washington for the spring retreat.

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Meanwhile, at the ranch, it’s lambing time. Wish I could have stayed! But it's true, the retreat was wonderful. . . .

There's a P.S. to this post that will be up very soon. It's going to take me longer to assemble than I planned because I got an idea about how to do it better. . . .

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5 Responses

  1. Janine

    Wonderful photos and commentary! I love Jeane’s yarn (and I sell it in my shop because I love it so much), so it is doubly exciting to see part of the process.

  2. Deb Robson

    Janine, you’ll also especially enjoy Monday’s post (I have bandwidth: I’m making up for some lost time!).

    And Elaine, isn’t the coloring wonderful? It’s hard to choose a favorite. But yeah, silvery with black is stunning.

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