One thing grounding me during these turbulent times is our own familiar rhythm of life on our little farm. Despite pandemics and car accidents and caring for loved ones facing illness, wool continues to grow and fleeces need to be sheared. Each of us has an (un)conscious daily rhythm and in times of stress and facing the unknown, I believe it is so necessary to surrender to what we do know, and that is the continuation of life in all its mundane regularities and its celebratory exceptions.
Before we knew words and phrases like coronavirus and self-distancing and flattening the curve, here at Gladsheim Farm we had decided to aim for greater self-sufficiency in many tasks of our animal husbandry. We live in a small, rural valley and as shepherds, we have always been at the mercy of the nomadic shearers arriving as they are able, which changes from year to year. Normally, this is fine and we can be flexible, but lately as our flock expands and we incorporate breeds that have fast growing fleeces, we needed more set schedules for the shearing and this motivated us to take things into our own hands….quite literally.
Like so much of farming, timing is everything for wool growers. We learned early on that it is ideal to shear your sheep before lambing. Not only do the lambs have an easier time finding the teats of their mamas as well as saving the fleeces from the messiness of birthing, but the stress of lambing and nursing can compromise the strength and quality of the fleece. For all these reasons, we choose to shear about 3 weeks before the lambs arrive and we ensure the timing of lambing coincides with warmer weather. When the sheep are scratching their hot skin against trees and fenceposts, we know they are ready to lighten their wool load.
Josh has dabbled with blade shearing (scissors) a few of our sheep in the spring and in the fall, but it just isn’t enough practice to really get into the groove of figuring out the nuances of positioning and speed. This amounts to taking nearly an hour to shear one sheep….and when you compare that to the two to five minutes an experienced shearer takes, the poor animal ends up spending a long time on their rump in awkward positions. When I came across videos of blade shearers using sheep stands, I felt empowered that we could make this happen. While my husband was a little skeptical about the stand idea, he good naturedly set to building one from tree branches and an old overturned chick brooder box. And it worked! The larger sheep fit snugly into the headrest and they all appeared to be calm and content while enduring their makeovers. In fact, the whole experience was a great way to bond with each individual sheep, while saving Josh’s back and inevitable hoof kicks to the arms and sometimes face. I had the bonus job of leaning against the sheep to help keep them staying in line, whispering words of encouragement and love into their ears. What a terrific experience for both sheep and shepherds. I think Josh was won over as he is talking about fine tuning the stand and taking it to neighbouring farms for practice.
Ten days and twelve bags of wool later, I am sorting through it all and delighted by the health and strength of my flock’s locks. Each of my sheep has gorgeous wool that I will now work with before sending to the mill. It takes about 10 days of 3 hours a day of picking the individual locks of one sheep to make sure there is no hay or alfalfa or bits of anything in the fleece before I send it to the mill…making a more beautiful, luxury farm yarn free of scratchy bits. Picking the fleeces is also a chance to look at each fleece and assess their own health. By looking at the length of the staple, it is like looking at the history of the sheep. A weak spot in the wool is quickly calculated to when that might have happened, and figure out what may have gone wrong at the time. Gratefully, my flock this year (as most years so far) has exceptional fleece that is both strong and fine….as well as very clean.
I am hoping to have all my fleeces shipped off to the mills by late May, but it can take up to a year to get the yarn back from the mills, and it seems to take forever! I have found two very good mills in western Canada that I trust with my precious sheep’s fleeces, and it is well worth the wait and price.
When you buy yarn from a small fibre farm, you are supporting that farming family, but also the local mills that work together with the farmers to create a remarkable yarn, reducing the ecological footprint. Wool Maiden is so proud of the quality of fibre and yarn that we offer, as well as the wonderful team we work with. And during these stressful times, shearing our sheep has proven to be a great way to take our mind off current events off the farm, re-focusing on what matters right here in our backyard.