Spring is my favorite season, and the best time for the annual shearing of the homestead’s flock of sheep. Having never observed this being done, I spoke with Trish and Steve Barrows in Candor who raise Jacob sheep.
Steve prefers late April to shear their sheep, but said that many prefer to shear a bit sooner. He learned to shear sheep with a few nicks and blood along the way – mostly on the sheep, not unusual. He showed me his vet kit with all the accoutrements to sew up any cut made by the shears, pointing out that dental floss makes the best suture material because of its strength. They have a set of old-fashioned hand shears, but it is obviously easier to use power tools. Steve also said that “because of the dense lanolin in their wool, each of the Jacob sheep clogs up one set of blades while being shorn.”
Trish shared her book with me on raising sheep, Your Sheep, A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing, by Paula Simmons and Darrell L. Salsbury, DVM. I found it a helpful read, wishing I’d had a book like that as a teen to raise my lamb. I also noted with interest in Your Sheep (pg. 52) that among the various reasons we fought for our independence from Great Britain in 1776 was the fact that King George had banned the colonists from buying wool-spinning machinery or sheep from Europe. So, with typical American ingenuity and pride, we entrepreneurs got going and built our own cottage industries which led to the eventual industrial revolution.
But, back to our task at hand - shearing a sheep. Specific holding positions are key to reduced struggling and, thus, less injury to the sheep and the shearer. To begin shearing, position the sheep in front of you in the seated position. To get a sheep sitting, not its preferred position, put your thumb into its mouth behind the teeth, bend the head to the right and across its back, lowering the sheep to the ground. With the sheep resting in a sitting position, hold its upper body between your legs.
As you bend over your sheep, shear the belly, crotch and legs first. Then, laying the sheep on its right side with your right knee at its brisket (chest), shear the wool from the rear leg, up across its side toward the ears. Next, move its head back as you shear the neck and under the jaw. Continue to shear up its back toward the head as you reposition the sheep between your legs and start to shear the remaining side. It is also helpful to shear as close as possible in specific patterns for each area until all wool is removed. Second cuts (going over the same area twice) are discouraged as they leave short pieces of virtually useless wool in the fleece.
A good source for a pattern of shearing cuts is found online here.
Shearing time is also a good time to check the health of each sheep. By taking time to trim the hooves, give vaccinations (not available on the colonists’ farms), worm them, and check for external parasites or any skin infections, you will shepherd a flock of healthy sheep with valuable wool.
Once the fleece is off your sheep, you need to “skirt” it by spreading it out on a table made of wire racks. This process is to remove debris (i.e. vegetative matter, or VMs as is the common term), such as burdocks or other weeds, bits of hay embedded in the wool, etc. Next, washing the fleece is vital, either by sending it to a mill for the complete process, or by doing this yourself. Soak the wool for about 20-30 minutes in very hot soapy water several times to remove dirt and melt off the lanolin. Trish warns, “Do NOT pour the lanolin-rich water down your drain - you will clog up your sewer system over time.”
Do not agitate the wool at this stage. When done soaking, gently squeeze out excess water and repeat a few more times. With today’s modern technology, Trish Barrows said she puts the fleece into a pillowcase to wring the water out in the washing machine. After the soaking/washing process, rinse the wool a few more times to remove the last vestiges of dirt, grime and soap that might still be embedded in the wool. Finally, lay the fleece out on wire racks to dry where it will have good air circulation.
Dyeing the dry wool can be done several ways. I was surprised to read in Your Sheep that you can use Kool-Aid to dye the wool, but also bright-colored crepe paper in rolls (not streamers), dyes from craft shops, and Rit or Tintex commercial fabric dyes. Trish showed me her binder from classes she had taken which displays her dyed wool with coloring based on various flowers and other items used in the dyeing process. In fact, Trish told me, “It took about a large garbage bag full of Black-eyed Susan flowers and stems to dye ten small skeins various shades of yellows and browns!” Other natural items for dyes include black walnut and butternut hulls, sumac for gray coloring, avocado pits for reds, while vinegar or other additives help vary the shading – for example, copper can give a greenish tinge. “Basically, the more plant materials you have, the deeper the dyes,” Trish added.
Different sheep breeds also have different types of wool. Some have a scratchy fleece, best for rugs, like the Scottish Black Face. The softest wool, like Merino, is excellent for delicate clothing items, while a medium coarseness is good for those cozy-warm sweaters. Trish stated, “There is a purpose for every type of wool. Each sheep is even individual in coloring. Our Jacob sheep have a medium wool, good for sweaters, hats and socks or mittens.”
Once the wool is dried after washing and dyeing, it’s a good idea to pick through it again. “It seems you never get all the bits out of a fleece,” Trish added. “When that’s done, you need to get the wool ready for spinning. You can use hand cards which look like cat/dog slicker brushes. They even out the wool into fluffy rolls called rolags. [A rolag or roileag is a Scottish/Gaelic term referring to a roll of wool fiber which is used to spin into yarn.]
Wool fibers are then pulled from the ends of these rolags and spun into yarn on bobbins (which look like big spools) by using a spinning wheel. The yarn can then be wound into balls for knitting, or onto smaller bobbins for weaving.”
Small upright spinner:
Antique wool spinning wheel, also called a great wheel or walking wheel:
A great reference for life on the homestead which Trish recommended is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” book series, particularly “Farmer Boy.” How well I remember reading this series and the TV show. I retrieved my copy from the bookshelf to reread about the old days and old ways, including weaving. And it all brought back memories of going to DeSmet, South Dakota while helping our daughter, Emily, move to Brookings, S.D. for grad school.
The Ingalls homestead
It was exciting to have the opportunity to see the prairie land of the Ingalls’ original family homestead, visit their homes in DeSmet, and see photos and learn more of their history.We saw how they would have planted a garden, saw the field of wheat partly destroyed by the previous day’s hailstorm just like what the Ingalls dealt with, a soddy built into the bank, the group of trees which had surrounded their original house, watched a very young foal running and kicking up its heels with great gusto all around its Mama, and a replica of the house Pa built. On the way back from the one-room schoolhouse, I even had the opportunity to take the reins on the mixed team of a black Percheron and a golden-brown Belgian. Granted, they knew their way back to the homestead, but I thoroughly enjoyed driving them as I lay the reins on their necks to ease them through curves on the beaten path!
Prairie house. But not a "soddie" !