Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Work in Progress

Photo credit: Emma Macon
Shearing sheep is intensely physical.  When I went to sheep shearing school five years ago at the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center, I was surprised by how sore my legs were - I'd assumed that stooping over a sheep would tire my back, but my hamstrings ached for days.  Several weeks ago, Matt Smith, a New Zealander living in Cornwall, England, set the world record (at least according the websites I've seen), set a world record by shearing 731 ewes in 9 hours - by himself!  (for more info, check out this website.) I'm not nearly as fast (Mr. Smith can probably shear 8-10 ewes in the time it takes me to shear one!) - nor can I shear for 9 hours straight.  But the interesting thing about shearing (and other physical skills) is that even Mr. Smith - at some point - had to struggle through shearing his first sheep, just like me!  And he only got really good at it by doing a lot of it!

That's the thing about shearing sheep!  Much like other agrarian "arts," shearing can't be learned by reading a book or watching someone else do it.  There are some great guides to help aspiring shearers get started (see this guide from the Premier 1 Supplies website, for example - or better yet, find a copy of Wool Away by Godfrey Bowen).  As I mentioned, I went to a 5-day school in Mendocino County.  But the only way to learn - and certainly the only way to get better at it - is to do it (and do lots of it).

When we shear our ewes, we hire our friend Derrick Adamache to shear for us.  Derrick has sheared sheep and goats for nearly 30 years.  He's fast, he handles our sheep well, and he has amazing stamina.  By hiring Derrick, I can focus on things like sorting the lambs from the ewes before they go into the shearing pen and on preparing the wool for marketing.  I also get to learn from Derrick!

We typically shear our ewes in early May while they are still nursing their lambs.  In mid summer, we try to shear the lambs we've kept.  Since they are fewer in number, and since they don't have to be sorted before shearing, I've started shearing them myself - I need the practice!  Last weekend, I sheared half of our replacement ewe lambs.  A couple of observations (about shearing and my own ability):

  • I'm slow when shearing the difficult parts of the sheep - parts where I'm working "blind" or worried about the sheep's "sensitive" areas.  This means it takes me longer than it would for an experienced shearer to shear the bellies, the crutch and the neck/first shoulder.  The more I shear, the more confident I get that I'm doing it right - but I'm still slow!
  •  Stamina is critical.  I find that as I get tired, I get out of position more frequently (which results in sheep are more active on the shearing board).  The last sheep always seem to be more active than the first sheep I shear!
  • Flexibility and muscle tone is also critical.  I sheared our ram lambs the weekend before, and was sore until Wednesday.  I sheared twice as many lambs Sunday, and I'm not sore at all!
  • I'm right handed, but my left hand is the critical hand in sheep shearing.  With my left hand, I position the sheep for each "blow" (or stroke) with the shearing handpiece.  With my left hand, I stretch the sheep's skin to smooth out the wrinkles that might otherwise be caught between the fingers of the comb and sliced by the cutters on the shearing machine.  I rarely pay attention to my non-dominant hand in my everyday activities; shearing forces me to do so.
  • Which brings me to my final observation: while shearing sheep is hard physically, it also takes mental stamina.  Looking up and seeing yet another pen full of sheep to be shorn can be discouraging if I have the wrong mental attitude about the work.  Pushing through my fatigue gets me to the point where I can look up and see a paddock full of freshly shorn sheep - a wonderful feeling!  But pushing through the fatigue is also an important step in becoming a better shearer.  Adjusting my positioning, improving my technique, increasing my flexibility - all of these make the act of shearing a single sheep faster and more comfortable (for me and for the sheep).
I like the thought that every fine woolen textile - from a Harris tweed coat to a Pendleton sweater to a Navajo rug - starts with the process of shearing a sheep.  Every piece of wool fabric starts with someone holding a sheep on the shearing board.  Some shearers call it the 60-second (or even 30-second) waltz - done well, shearing has all of the repetitiveness and rhythm of dance.  Done well, shearing - and a well-shorn sheep - are impressive to observe.  I aspire to doing it well!

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