What the Shepherds Have Taught Me

When I began this journey of fiber exploration, I did not intend to dive into the realm of breed study – or even to become a wool merchant!  I began as a way to de-stress and provide an outlet for some creative juices, to do something with my hands to take my mind of something less appealing.  In short, I began in a way many others do.  And I began knitting; I didn’t take up spinning until later – because I couldn’t find the yarn I wanted and because it appealed to my sense of history.

When I discovered different breeds, a whole new world opened up to me (more on that later this year) but I soon found myself unable to get ALL the breeds.  I had books about the wools from so many breeds – I began with Fournier – and I couldn’t find some of them.  So I started talking to shepherds instead.  Along the way, I discovered things about the wool from the shepherds that is either not commonly shared or may be commonly ignored by the general spinning public; particularly the spinning public that does not work from raw fleece quite so much.

This blog post honors some of the things I have learned from my precious and appreciated shepherds.  It began as “an interview with a shepherd” – or rather, shepherds.  I have asked many shepherds many questions, but they all ultimately have similar things to say.  Some of these things I have touched upon before, some of these things are talked about by multiple people, and some of these things really get the shepherds on a tirade.

Without further ado, this is some of what my shepherds have taught me.

Most of my shepherds don’t know their wool is worth selling

No, it’s true.  They really don’t know that people love to spin the wool from their sheep.  Most only have contact with the wool pool and the wool pool pays them so little.  It is especially true of shepherds raising what are considered meat sheep – breeds like Suffolk, Oxford and Southdown, or Clun Forest. Some shepherds choose not to raise wonderful breeds like Leicester Longwool because they take too long to reach a market (for meat) age.  And some, like Icelandic or Shetland, because they are so small they don’t fetch enough money for meat.

When they learn about spinners they get excited – and sometimes have a bad experience because of our proclivity for longer staples or pristine wool.  One shepherd I work with – especially for some of the meat breeds – was so excited to work with us because we could field those questions and give him another outlet for his sheep – and pay the shearer – while letting him get on with what he loved: raising his sheep.

Fleece is a byproduct – and most of us think it’s garbage

This lesson is a partner to the previous one.  I know this statement hurts me to the very cockles of my being and it probably makes all of you cringe, but it’s still true.  Shepherds raise sheep for meat – or for breeding stock.  Sometimes a quality ram is worth its weight in, er, you know what I mean.  Some of the shepherds have also learned they can get a couple month’s feed or help pay the shearer with what they make from the sale of fleece to handspinners.  But ultimately, wool is not making them rich.  If they are lucky, the added income stream helps them to pay the bills.

If a shepherd develops a relationship with various sources, such as The Spinning Loft, we are able to work with them, give feedback on the fleece, and get better fleece over time – and pay the shepherd a fair price for their labor and efforts.  And, as quality goes up, so do their costs and the cost of that wool.  It costs a LOT of money to raise sheep – money for vet bills, barns, feed, equipment, shearers (even meat stock has to be shorn before harvest!)  – and they don’t get nearly enough money from the sale of the wool to cover those expenses.  And that doesn’t include their mortgages, farm equipment, electric and water bills, food for their tables, etc.

I recently posted an excellent article about this subject in the UK, and it’s no different (if not worse) here, in a place where eating lamb is exotic and mutton all but unknown.  Almost all the clips from the large and medium flocks are bought by large mills for things like Pendleton blankets, Patagonia, etc.  and they are paid pennies for their pounds of fleece.  Whatever doesn’t sell still goes to the compost heap or the trash.  Now, as a spinner you’re thinking “oh yes pennies please!” but that’s such a disservice to our wonderful shepherds.  I remind you – they lose thousands of dollars on the wool and like you and I, they deserve to earn a living, put food on the table and send their children to school.

Coating is a misery

As spinners, we all love a pristine fleece in gorgeous condition with nothing to remove.  Such fleeces lend themselves to our impulsiveness, our desire and our need to just dive into some glorious wool.  But coating is not without its problems.

Sheep already have coats: their fleeces!  Adding another layer can put added stress on the sheep that produce the wool we love.  They can get overheated, they can get caught in scrub and become easy pickings for predators while in the field, the coats can actually damage the fleece by felting the tips – or by trapping grease and sweat and causing sores.  Coating can even stress a sheep who doesn’t like the coat so much it affects their health causes a break in the fleece.  Coating is also prohibitively expensive for most of them.  Those coats are not cheap and they have to be changed as the fleece grows – sometimes every month or so.  That’s a lot of coats!  To save money many shepherds make their coats – which adds the burden of time at a sewing machine to their already long days and these are shepherds, not seamstresses or tailors.  Coating adds a ton of money to the cost of your fleece – money spinners prefer to spend on wool.

Sheep live in fields and barns, VM and dirt comes with the territory

Sorry about the dirt and grass, but we love to be outside!

It’s uncanny – not a single one of my shepherds has failed to mention this when I have asked them “what they wish spinners knew”.  Some of them have even spent HOURS decrying this trend against VM and dirt.  They understand – really, they do.  They know that a cleaner fleece is easier on us. They know a cleaner fleece commands a higher price.  “But don’t they understand?” my shepherds cry, “The sheep live in fields – they don’t shower and change their clothes each day, throwing yesterday’s in the wash!”   And it’s true.  Sheep lie in the grass or dirt.  Sheep wander through brush and scrub and trees.  Sheep don’t mind standing in the rain – and snuggling down in the warm compost heap.  Some sheep even have long locks designed to shed the water from that rain – which then can drag through more sloppy ground

Sheep who also live in barns tend to be dirtier, though they are also less likely to cot or felt thanks to less weather exposure.  But on the flip side, they like to eat hay underneath or above their flock mates – and boy are sheep messy eaters!  They always wind up with bits of hay and straw in their necks, and backs; if only they’d learn to use a fork.

Shepherds must care for the land on which they keep their sheep – making sure that it provides them with nutrients and safety.  They often struggle to remove burdock and other prickly shrubberies from their sheepfolds.  Quality environment leads to healthy sheep and quality fleece and that is far more important than the dirt we can not only wash off of ourselves, but off of our wool.  We must accept that all fleece is not pristine.

Please don’t ask us for just a small amount from this spot on a fleece

This one really gets their goat.  Imagine, kind spinners, if after you worked so hard to produce a beautiful skein of yarn someone wanted to buy that yarn.  You are overjoyed.  The skein is lovely and you are happy someone wants it.  You toiled for a nice even yarn, something smooth and consistent – or maybe you toiled for the perfect art yarn, filled with bobbles, eyelash or beads.  It took many hours of careful scouring, lock by lock, followed by many hours of careful combing or carding.  And then even more hours of spinning and plying.  Perhaps somewhere in there you also dyed your fiber.  Perhaps you achieved 1000 yards from your small amount of fiber or perhaps it’s the most poofy lovely DK weight – destined for a cabled hat and mittens.  You are so happy!  You worked so hard and your toil has paid off.

But wait – what is this?  The buyer only wants this particular 3 yard stretch from the middle of your skein for some fair isle work?  Would you please cut that part out and sell it instead?  And incidentally, your family wants dinner, other customers are scrabbling for your attention, your wheel is squeaky and wants to throw its driveband (you were hoping this sale would help you get it overhauled by the maker this month).  But alas, your buyer says you should just cut that part out because they insist it’s the right thing to do.  No my spinner friends, it is not.  There are people the shepherd works with to achieve this.  If you really want only a couple pounds, go in on the fleece with some friends and share it or contact a retailer who sells in smaller quantities.

Our shearers are underpaid and overworked – and they skirt.  

A shearer at work – Shearing, skirting, and keeping the sheep safe

Oh our wonderful unsung heroes!  Shearers are a dying breed.  There are a handful of them throughout the US (and world, really).  All of them travel during shearing season from one flock to the next shearing hundreds or thousands of head a year and spending weeks and months on the road away from home.  They charge by the head, and hope this charge pays for their truck, their hotels, their gas, their equipment, maintenance, and all the other bills you and I have as well.  Shepherds book them months in advance and they stick to their schedules.  They are not on call – and some, like those who shear with scissors, are a rarer breed still.  Shearing is hard work – the sheep are heavy, they spend hours at a time hunched over a flock, one sheep after another on uncomfortable ground.  While they shear, if they have an agreement with the shepherds, they trim hooves (yes, that’s an add on).  Shepherds and shearers work together – the shearer can see various conditions when they shear.  Perhaps there’s a clump of dandruff, or a break in the fleece, the shearer can spot these and notify the shepherd.

If you want to anger a shearer ask them to skirt more carefully.  I had a lovely discussion with a local shearer who works with one of my shepherds.  We had planned the interview and I was clear up front that I was hoping to learn and share with my fellows so as not to offend.  I was glad that I did.  As I mentioned in my last blog post – shearers already skirt.  They do it with the hand not wielding the blades and the shearer I interviewed said that it was the most offensive question he gets asked.  He said it was akin to someone questioning the quality of our work – and no one likes that.  Shearers “work hard,” he said, “to shear fleeces cleanly and efficiently for the shepherds; and to make those fleeces usable if desired – and that means skirting.”  He also said he appreciates it when the shepherds disclose that they have a spinners’ flock – they can schedule more shearings that day, adjust timing, or even ask if several flocks nearby can be brought together for a shearing – but it doesn’t change how he shears.  “The shepherds,” he emphasized, “won’t have me back if I don’t do a good job.  A shearer must shear cleanly, efficiently, with the fewest possible number of blows (a blow is the pass they take with the blades to shear the wool off).  Having to go back over a fleece, creating what you call second cuts, slows us down and risks wriggling sheep or wasted wool.  And my family needs to eat; doing a good job is how I feed them.”

Speaking of shearing – nicks happen and the sheep don’t notice

This one was totally logical – and yet surprising.  The first time I saw a sheep sheared at a shearing with one of my shepherds, the ewe squirmed at a delicate moment and the shearer accidentally nicked her butt.  Naturally, I asked my shepherd about it and her young son answered my question, “Oh they don’t feel that – it’s no big deal.  It wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t squirm just then.”

My shepherd confirmed it and explained.  As prey animals, sheep have developed limited nerve endings in their skin.  Unlike you or I, they don’t react with a sharp hiss and recoil in pain when they get nicked.  And just like when we shave ourselves, nicks, though unusual, do happen.  There’s a special antibiotic/antibacterial liquid that the shepherds use when it happens, and the shearers always feel terrible.  But it really is no big deal and the sheep never notice.

And what about the stress, you might wonder.  Well, most animals object when they are rolled over – at least until they get all the way over.  It’s just really awkward for them in the process.  All that struggling ends when the sheep are on their butts and relaxed, like a dog getting its belly rubbed – and it’s all just a temper tantrum anyway.  The sheep aren’t hurt, tormented, stressed or disturbed any more than your 2 year old at her first hair cut.

Sheep need shearing – unless the breed is feral, the gene that allows them to roo (shed their fleece like a dog or cat or rabbit blows its coat) has been bred out and they rely upon us for their hair cuts.  Remember that: sheep rely on us for their health.  Part of that health includes shearing.  Besides, we want that wool for spinning!

We raise sheep because we love them – the money comes from the meat

If you love sheep, eat lamb AND use the wool.  Our shepherds love their flocks.  They find them rewarding and want to maintain their shepherding lives.  But they make more money from selling their sheep for meat – and that includes the very low prices they get.  I wondered at this myself  given the price of lamb in the supermarket until I learned that almost all our lamb is imported from Australia or New Zealand, with Iceland a close third.  Now, I love all three nations – and I appreciate their products – but there are hundreds of local shepherds who have lamb that doesn’t need a freezer transport and a plane ticket.

I know many of us would say “if you love your sheep don’t kill them!” but the truth is that ewes have many purposes, and rams do not.  Many spinners don’t like ram fleeces – sometimes they are coarser, they are often larger, and sometimes they have a “rammy” smell that takes a bit more attention to remove in scouring.  And, the older a sheep gets, the coarser its fleece gets.

I learned from several shepherds that too many rams in a flock are not only dangerous to the shepherd, but to the ewes and lambs as well.  A ram that wants to mate can easily kill a lamb to gain access to a ewe, so they are frequently kept separately from the ewes.  But too much testosterone in one place leads to rams attacking each other and fighting for dominance.  One of my Jacob shepherds reported finding a pair of valued rams in his field after such a fight, one had not survived while the other was severely injured and required significant veterinary care.  A shetland shepherd I work with reported a ram attacking her every time she separated him from the ewes!  All that mating has some other effects as well: on several occasions after observing a much larger flock than usual or intended, I have been told of “accidental lambs.”  A ram can mate with an ewe who shouldn’t raise a lamb that year, or who is too young, and the shepherds don’t always know that it has happened until it’s too late. “What about wethering?” I asked.  Well, it seems that wethering is not the best solution either.  Sometimes the wethers are attacked and bitten by other rams.  And unless that wether has an extremely lucrative fleece or companion purpose, he’s just eating.

I also learned that just as different breeds of sheep have different types of wool, different breeds of sheep taste differently!  Tunis really does taste better than Merino or Corriedale or Suffolk.  So does Icelandic.  And Katahdin is quite different than Tunis.  Who knew?

Breed standard length – well, that’s not necessarily what I can get in a year

This one was revelatory for me.  An inch is an inch is an inch right?  A year’s growth is the breed standard right?  Well, sort of.  Long wools grow their wool faster in a shorter time, reaching a reasonable breed standard in 6-8 months instead of a year.  But meat breeds take longer.  Finer staples with super crimp are slower too.  All that crimp we love makes the fleece take longer to reach it’s length; too many sharp turns – like the Col du Chaussy in the 2015 Tour de France!

And what may be a year’s growth – well, that may not be in the best interest of the sheep.  A year’s growth on a Teeswater might well be 10-12” but letting a Teeswater go for a year frequently results in felted fleece, or causes the sheep to overheat, particularly in the tropical weather of the mid Atlantic and south east, so the shepherds shear twice a year.  Keeping a Merino going for a full year can create issues in the skin folds and disguise fly strike, so maybe they are shorn every 8 months instead.  And sometimes a bad winter or hot humid summer threatens the well being of the sheep and the shepherd doesn’t shear or keeps a fleece shorter to save the sheep.

My shepherds have taught me so much – this is really just the tip of the iceberg.  The more I learn from them, the more I love the wool their sheep make – and appreciate them.  They live in the best interests of their flocks – and that results in the best interest of my spinning.  I have learned that sometimes that means *I* have to work harder – so that *they* can keep bringing me the wool I love.  It’s a fair trade.

All Hail the Sheep.  Scēap Waes thu Hael!