You Get to Dance with the Sheep
by Kate Jaffe
The first time I had ever heard of sheep shearing, I was spinning wild mountain goat hair into yarn with a bearded, spoon carving, sailor. The sailor had collected the Wild Goat hair off of bushes in the Olympic mountains. He was a man of many skills and life experiences, and he cavalierly asked me if I had ever sheared a sheep before. "You get to dance with the sheep," he told me. No, I had not only never sheared a sheep before, I wasn't sure I had even seen the activity. Lost in my bucolic ideas about how wool ended up in my hands and on my body- I quickly realized that I had no idea what actually went in to process.
I am a weaver, spinner, felter, and wool-wearer, but I was mostly drawn to sheep shearing through the notion that I had a huge gap in my relationship and understanding of wool. It felt important to "meet my fleece." So I enrolled in Sheep Shearing School. And the part about the dance is mostly true - but we'll get to that. An important thing to know off the bat is that nearly every piece of wool you have ever worn has been taken off of a sheep by hand. Even though a few robotic methods of shearing sheep have been invented, they are far less safe, effective, and trusted than shearing by hand.
Secondly - sheep need to be sheared at least once a year, and twice a year for some breeds or climates. Wild species of sheep and goats (such as the mountain goats mentioned earlier) naturally shed their heavy down coats, but the sheep we know of today - which were among the first wild animals to be domesticated - have been bred over thousands of years not to shed their wool by leaving it on bushes so that it could be saved and utilized for all of the same reasons we still love wool today. In exchange for their wool, farmers help the sheep find food, keep them healthy, take them to the vet when they are sick, and hire alpacas or big dogs to keep the mountain lions and packs of coyotes away. The relationship between sheep and humans has been evolving for a very long time.
Shearing sheep is a beautiful heritage craft, but it is not an easy task at all. Imagine trying to get your cat to dance tango with you - if your cat was 300 pounds heavy and did not like being touched. But because sheep cannot shed on their own, it is a hazard to their health if they are not sheared every year. Un-shorn fleeces can cover up the eyes and ears of the sheep along with the backsides of the sheep causing their waste to get trapped against their skin. Shearing is also a good time for the shearer and sheep- tender to look closely at the sheep to help them out with any wounds or sickness they might have acquired. As soon as the sheep get the fleeces off of their body and they can feel the spring breeze on their skin - they are happy.
Considering how much wool we use, why haven't we all seen a sheep getting sheared before? Textile production is one of the myriad points of disconnection we as consumers have from the farmer people and plant people and animal people that provide our food and clothing for us. The history of that disconnection is too long to delve in to in this article but do me this one favor - next time you wear wool - try to give thanks for the entire chain of production that made it so - the store that sold it, the shipper who shipped it, the person or machine who made it, the person or machine who prepared the wool in to yarn, the human shearers who helped the sheep safely get it off, and of course - the sheepy themselves.