Lydia Hill on Harvesting Wool…
With all this shearing inspiration, we at WOVEMBER wondered how you might begin developing the skills required to shear sheep. Where do you, for instance, pick up the correct clothes and tools for the job? And if you want to learn to shear sheep, whom should you approach for advice or training?
If you were asking these kinds of questions, you might begin by reading the blog of Lydia Hill, Tales from the Sheep Shed, whose wonderful photos we saw earlier today! Lydia writes beautifully about all aspects of shearing, covering everything from the horrors of flystrike to the excitement of lamb-shearing competitions, and updates on her own inspiring learning progress. WOVEMBER loves the humour and pathos with which Lydia shares her experiences of shearing sheep, and asked if she might put together a “how to” article, inspiring anyone who is considering learning to shear sheep to begin taking steps towards realising this dream! Even if you don’t want to learn how to shear sheep, Lydia’s writing gives great insights into what is really involved with getting WOOL off the sheep which it grows on – all helping to close the gap – so that we understand even more deeply what is involved in producing the WOOLLEN textiles that we love.
So you want to shear sheep?
I know you are out there. People like me who decide to learn to shear sheep when we are past our teenage years and do not possess a body rippling with muscles. If you want to learn to shear sheep it is advisable to go on a course with a qualified instructor. This is my course survival guide.
Fitness and flexibility
Shearing sheep requires strength, stamina and flexibility. The bind is you need to shear a lot of sheep in order to master the skill, but in order to shear a lot of sheep you need to be fit. You can expect a commercial ewe to weigh around 80kg or 12 stone. The fitter you are the more you will get out of your shearing course. Saying that, I was not all fit when I went on my first shearing course and I survived.
Whatever your level of fitness the important thing is to pace yourself. If you are feeling tired, stop shearing. However fit you are, learning to shear sheep is exhausting and can be frustrating. Mistakes happen when you are getting tired or stressed and usually the sheep will pay the price.
Cutting sheep is an inevitable part of learning to shear. No one wants to cut a sheep but it will happen. Most shearing cuts are relatively minor shallow skin cuts which soon heal. However it is possible to severely injure the sheep, or even injure yourself or another person with a shearing handpiece. Sticking to the shearing pattern and taking a break before your concentration or your muscles start to give out will help to prevent injuries.
What to wear and equipment
Wear clothes which you don’t mind being ruined. You will get very dirty. Avoid loose baggy clothing which will tangle round the sheep or get caught in the equipment. A big baggy top will obscure your view when you bend forward. A long top which stays tucked in when you bend over will prevent sunburn and protect vulnerable hard working back muscles from draughts, as well as saving you embarrassment. Ladies, make sure you test your bra–top combo in advance. Bend over double and shake things around a bit, if nothing falls out you should be ok.
The most essential bit of specialist kit for a sheep shearing course is a pair of moccasins. Shearing in wellingtons, trainers or anything else will be harder work. When shearing you need to be completely flat on the floor. The slightest heel, even that of a welly, will make shearing harder.
You also need good grip. A shearing board is a piece of smooth wood soaked in lanolin. Moccasins absorb sheep grease as you work, the greasier the soles of your moccasins the better. The lanolin in the board sticks to the lanolin in the soles of your moccasins and your feet have a better chance of remaining where you put them. Remember, you will have up to 80kg of sheep leaning against your legs. It is a hard enough job to prevent your feet from sliding away with good grip, with slippery soles you stand no chance and the sheep will escape.
Ideally on a beginners course all shearing equipment will be provided for you. However you may be asked to bring your own combs and cutters to the course. I would advise contacting the course organisers to see if this is absolutely necessary as combs and cutters are expensive.
Combs and cutters are the parts which actually cut the wool. If you drop the handpiece or the sheep kicks it out of your hand the teeth of the comb may shatter, making the comb dangerous. Combs and cutters become blunt quite quickly and can only be sharpened using a specialist grinder. You can easily go through several combs and cutters in a day. With combs starting from around £10 each and cutters around £3 each, supplying your own will considerably increase the cost of the course.
Learning to shear sheep can take you to your physical and mental limits. The most important factor in surviving a shearing course is bonding with your fellow students. Sweating till you stink, getting very dirty and falling over hugging a sheep can seem undignified but you are all going through the same barriers. You survive by helping each other. The sense of achievement and the camaraderie far outweigh the aching muscles.
Us mature students may never be world champions but it is possible for us to learn how to shear sheep. We can make a contribution to the wool harvest.
Shearing Equipment Suppliers
Here is a list of the main UK suppliers of sheep shearing equipment. You can buy moccasins, combs and cutters and other equipment from these suppliers.
George Mudge and Co Shearing Equipment
Welsh Shearing Equipment Ltd.
Highway Shearing Equipment Ltd
For UK shearing courses visit the British Wool Marketing Board website or phone them on 01274 688666.
Many thanks to Lydia Hill for this practical, informative article. For further news of Lydia’s work, do check out her blog, and for photos of her learning the skills required to write this piece, please refer to the photo essay Lydia put together for WOVEMBER readers! Also, don’t forget that a £20 voucher for Shearer Girl Yarns is one of the prizes on offer for entering the Wovember Photo Competition! Lydia Hill runs Shearer Girl Yarns. Her blog is Tales From the Sheep Shed. She can be found on Ravelry as shearersgirl and on Twitter as @romneyteg.