Written by: Elizabeth Victor
If you watch shearing demonstrations, the shearer gathers up the shorn fleece in his arms and throws it into the air for the crowd. The fleece magically unfolds in the air and then floats down to the ground, tip side up, in perfect shape. Weds afternoon, with smaller fleeces at a different farm, David taught me how to do this: when you look down at the pile of wool on the skirting floor, the front of the fleece is nearest you and the back side of the fleece is closest to the shearers post. It is easy to see where the right rear leg wool is.....this is was the last part shorn and it extends, in the shape of a leg, out to the right. This can be seen in the right photo above - it is the scruffy wool in the right hand lower corner of the photo. The left leg, shorn early, is hidden under the big lump of wool and is harder to find; you have to reach way under the wool to find it. He taught me to grab the right leg wool by the tip side, reach under and find the back leg and grab it by the tip side, then scrunch the wool together, grab the rump part with your thumbs, then swoop your arms across the sides of the wool and gather it all up to your chest. You stand up straight, look out into the distance over the skirting table, and then throw the whole lump of wool out, then pull the back legs toward you, let go and watch it fall onto the skirting table tip side up! Needless to say, I was not very good at this and even after spending some hours practicing, I wasn't able to come up to speed.
The skirters, Kathy, Laurie, and Carol, are all handspinners, so the comments from the skirting table were all about the wool; crimp, luster, fineness, coarseness, color and staple length. David would take a break from his shearing to check out a particularly fine or unusual fleece he had just sheared. Carol would occasionally call out to Cathy, who was recording weights, asking for a tag number of a particular sheep and then comment on the breeding of that sheep. In the picture below, David is checking out the fleece on the skirting table. Kathy (also in a red jacket), Carol (right) and Laurie (left) are skirting. Cathy is hidden by Joe. The pen to the right contains belly wool. Joe is waiting by the chutes, probably a little overwhelmed by these chatty middle aged women gawking at wool.....
Each fleece is graded during skirting. The skirters remove all the unusable wool and chuck it under the skirting table. This includes the short bits, chaff, tags, and the leg and britch wool. They also remove the wool not covered by the coats but this wool is placed into the plastic barrels for additional skirting later. When this is done, they fold the fleece toward the center, skirting the underside as they go. The fleece is then bundled into a clean sheet draped over a bushel basket (seen to the left of the skirting table in the picture above) and tied up. Cathy weighs the fleece, records the weight and grade in a notebook and then adds a notecard with the sheep number and weight to the bundled wool. The bundled fleeces are then moved into separate areas based on grade and use.
The best fleeces are heavily skirted and will be sold to handspinners. The remaining fleeces will be graded and used at the mill. Carol dyes the better wool and makes it into roving for handspinners or has it made into yarn at a spinnery. She also dyes the lesser quality wool and makes this into roving for braided rugs or batts to be used for felting. Nothing is wasted; the wool scraps under the skirting table will be composted.
Here are the naked "ladies". You can see how pregnant they are. Carol and Paul waited about three weeks longer this year to shear so the ewes were pretty round. David said he could feel lambs in a few of the ewes and noted that a few were very close to lambing. In fact, we had a surprise on Monday. Carol heard some bleating and popped her head into another part of the barn. She yelled out to Paul, "Paul, we have lambs!". Kathy and I went to check it out and sure enough, there was a dark ewe that had just given birth to twins and was laying down. Paul popped his head around the corner just as another set of legs appeared; he grabbed the third lamb and gave it a gentle pull and placed it next to the ewe. Cool! This is the first time I had ever seen anything give birth. The ewe immediately got up and attended to her lambs. Paul swabbed antibiotic on the umbilical area of each lamb.
There was one large lamb, a medium lamb and then a very tiny lamb and in just a short time they were up and walking, following their Mom, except the tiny lamb was having difficulties keeping up. Paul put them into a pen and hooked up a heat lamp. At the end of the day Monday, the ewe was shorn. She had a beautiful fleece that Carol cold have sold for handspinning but because of afterbirth she gave it to Kathy. We found out later the tiny lamb was stepped on by it's mom and died a little later, probably from internal injuries.
There were many breaks during the day and a nice lunch with a selection of desserts brought by Kathy and Laurie. We had turkey sandwiches and soup from Carol and Paul's turkeys, potato salad and two pies from Kathy, and cookies and chocolate cake from Laurie. Shearing went slower Monday than on Tuesday and Wednesday so the skirters had some lulls in which they could have a good chat. Folks stopped by for short visits or to take care of business with Paul and Carol. Joe's father, pictured below, came on Weds. Paul isn't in these pictures; he hung out in the back of the barn, attending to the sheep, doing barn chores, and moving sheep into the chutes with instructions for Joe.
At the end of the day, the bundled fleeces stockpiled in the barn (below left) were loaded into the back of the truck and moved up to the mill or Carol's back porch for storage.
It seemed like there was wool everywhere! Carol set aside 4 fleeces for her personal use and later exclaimed, "What was I thinking?". There is a lot of work ahead processing all that wool! As a perk for helping, we each got to choose a fleece hot off the back of the sheep! I chose a very dark grey fleece from one of the rams. Laurie is a fiber artist and I learned that she skirts for other farmers in exchange for fleeces. She uses the fleeces to make beautiful sculptures, felt, and handspun yarns. Not a bad way to acquire fleeces!
This report was a little long and a little technical, but I hope you liked it anyway. I will end this report with this picture of Carol, taken at the skirting table Weds showing off a particularly nice fleece.