Chris’ telltale greenish-gray truck pulls into the barnyard early in the morning as we’re doing chores. Shearing season once again has arrived on the farm, and the 120-odd sheep are ready. As the temperatures tentatively climb out of the deep freeze, their heavy wool coats will soon be too intense for their comfort.
In the wild, sheep naturally shed their fleece in the spring, rubbing on trees and rocks and anything else that will help them peel off winter’s fibers, just as the bucks do to rub off their antlers after the rutting season. Wild sheep and goats look rather shaggy through this phase, much like when your dog blows its coat in the spring. Our English Shepherd herding dogs will be going through that annual phase soon, and goodness there is fur everywhere for weeks!
Ancient peoples would have to gather up these shed fibers from bushes and fences in order to harvest and use them, having to beat all the nest-builders of the wild in the process. This meant that much of the fibers shed by early sheep were lost, so the process was inefficient, as far as the people were concerned. With selective breeding, sheep were preferred that did not shed their coat, which meant that people would have to trim off the wool on behalf of the sheep. This increases the labor involved, but the trade-off was that now ALL of the wool was harvested by the humans, who were becoming reliant on this resilient and versatile fiber for clothing, shelter, and comfort.
The process from shearing to yarn is quite involved—from clipping the wool off each sheep to skirting the fleece and removing any hay or dirty parts. Then the sticky wool must be washed and combed (carded), then spun and plied into yarn. If the wool is dyed, this adds another layer onto the process as well.
After shearing, I face off with a mountainous pile of raw wool for skirting. For a cute video on this click here. It’s a sticky, smelly business, and I usually head straight for the laundry room and the shower when finished. The lanoline oil the sheep secrete from their skin to help repel water from their wool coats my exam gloves a tarry black as I work, sorting colored fleeces from white ones, and bagging the wool into 50-gallon drum liners. I pack and press, trying to use the bags as efficiently as possible.
It takes more than one session in the garage, with the wool piled on palates. I clear one pile, only for Kara to bring another painter’s drop cloth bundle full of wool from the barn. But while the work is tedious and laborious and my back and hands are sore, I am grateful for this wonderful gift from our sheep. Wool is captured carbon—energy from the sun and the rain and the grasses all summer. This wool kept our animals safe and warm all winter, and now it will become beautiful yarn to keep us warm and to create works of creative expression.
Back at Farmstead, I’ve been going through our yarn inventory, picking out which colors need replacing or should be added to the inventory, tying bundles to a cue card for the mill. We use Ewetopia Woolen Mill in La Farge, Wisconsin. Kathryn, the owner, has all the specialized equipment to wash, card, and spin—transforming these sticky fibers into gorgeous, hand-dyed product I can use. It’s a process I am more than happy to delegate!
This morning, we pulled the cargo van up to the garage where I had been working, and Kara climbed inside so we could hand her the stuffed drum liners. Pushing and cramming, we managed to pack all 15 of the bags into the van, and now Mom and Steve are off to the mill. When the yarn is ready, it will be like Christmas, seeing how each of the colors turned out and admiring the skeins. Oh, so many future projects to create and kits to make!
Amazingly, the yarn will be much less voluminous than this raw wool. The lanoline and dirt accounts for nearly half of the weight of the current load of fiber, and even thought I packed the wool tightly, there is still a significant amount of air in the bags. Yarn, thankfully, is a denser product, making it much easier to pack up when we fetch the finished product to bring home.
I love how we work so hard to honor each piece of what our animals offer—the meat, the milk, the fiber, the poop, the hides, the grazing capacities, and so on. For some shepherds, wool has become an annoying waste product of raising sheep. The market value of raw wool—once prized as immensely valuable—is at an incredible low. Some folks just burn it to get rid of it.
Instead, we save it and have it transformed into a beautiful and useful product, which we use right here in our own creative practice and through my teaching outreach. This week, I sent tapestry kits across the country and to Canada, preparing for upcoming courses. All the yarn included for the weft is from our sheep. That’s local love in every inch of fiber.
If you love working with fiber, find a way to share that love this week by sourcing local wool for your next project and celebrate the season of spring shearing.