Caroline Fryar on Harvesting Wool…
TEAM WOVEMBER are delighted to be able to share these photos from Caroline Fryer in this last post on our Harvesting Wool theme! Caroline Fryar is famous in knitwerld for the fantastic designs she has produced – go look on Ravelry or on the Juniper Moon Farm website for examples! Caroline left Juniper Moon Farm a little while ago, but the influence of living on a farm and working with the animals there is evident in her wonderful writings on wool, and on the things she knits, and what she knits with. To WOVEMBER she is like the living embodiment of what could happen to fashion if all fashion designers got to live on sheep farms and appreciate WHAT WOOL IS! Check out this description of a 100% WOOL yarn that Caroline began knitting into an Aran, back in January;
The wool in question is Cormo Rusticus. It’s creamy, luscious, and utterly unlike anything I’ve ever knit with before. It really is exactly identical to the stuff that the sheep out there are covered in – although that’s obviously no surprise.
In lieu of reinforcing the so-often-imposed dichotomy between softness and scratchiness/sheepiness (and the perhaps concomitant moral imperative– to which I so often fall prey– to choose the sheepy and scratchy over the silk/alpaca/mass-produced-merino and soft), I won’t be telling you that this wool is “so cozy, yet so sheepy– it’s a perfect marriage!”, because I think that’s the easy way out, and that’s boring.
Really, the adjective that comes closest is creamy. It’s like the inside of a perfectly-cooked bean. Tender. With substance. Coherent. Two ticks to the smooth side of gritty. It’s perfect.
As if this wasn’t already a wonderfully sheepy project, involving 100% WOOL yarn from Juniper Moon Farm’s very own Cormo sheep, Caroline included a type of cable called a “Sheepfold cable”;
Sorry, Caroline, TEAM WOVEMBER have been stalking your knitting!
…but why are we showing finished garments and knitted objects here in the Harvesting Wool phase of WOVEMBER? Well, if you haven’t gathered yet, we are really excited about how those things are connected – a sentiment brilliant captured by Dave Wheeler in this photograph which we showed at the start of Harvesting Wool but which is too amazing not to feature again:
Photo of a crofter wearing a fleece he has just taken from a sheep, © Dave Wheeler
Caroline’s work with wool testifies to the imaginative influence that being closer to the source of our clothes can have on how we think about them, and her account of learning to shear sheep is an especially apposite note to end this phase of WOVEMBER on, since it testifies to the positive influence of Emily Chamelin amongst young, would-be shearers, and evokes the learning journey of Lydia Hill. WOVEMBER is delighted to have been able to feature so many encouraging stories of people learning to shear during this phase of our month-long celebration of what wool is.
These images first appeared in this post on the Juniper Moon blog and Caroline’s acount of learning to shear with former farm manager Erin, at Emily Chamelin‘s shearing school is highly recommended reading material! For a taster of how to Harvest Wool in pictures, here are Caroline’s photos of Erin learning, under the guiding hand of Emily.
Erin was braver than everybody else, and so went first.
To begin with, you sit the sheep up in front of you– this is first position. Starting at the breastbone (we called it the brisket!), start shearing off the belly wool.
Since this is the wool that’s dirtiest, it helps to go ahead and get it out of the way. It’s important to shear wide enough to make sure that you’re well-set-up for farther down the road.
After you take off the belly wool, you lean over further and take the wool off the legs and crotch, sort of scooping the clippers up the right leg, across, and down the left leg. The big danger here is accidentally shearing off a ewe’s teats, so you’re supposed to cover them up with your left hand (“you sure won’t shear ‘em off now!”).
Once the belly, crotch, and legs are clean, you rotate about 90 degrees, change into second position, and start shearing her left hind leg (I’m using the feminine pronoun because, well, most sheep are ewes). It’s also in this second step that you clear the wool off from the tail area, and, since her head is easily accessible, shear off the topknot of fleece from the top of her head.
After than, you swing your legs around your sheep and into third position. You’re going to move your clippers up from the brisket along the neck, and end your stroke (or “blow,” as they’re called) under the left side of her chin. This is, in my opinion, the most thrilling – I mean that in both senses – part of shearing. You’re “unzipping” the fleece along the underside of the neck, and it definitely looks and feels the coolest, but it’s also terrifying.
Because (obviously) the sheep is covered in wool, you can’t tell where the wool ends and the sheep begins unless you have a very exact knowledge of her specific anatomy and musculature. It’s pretty terrifying to move a pair of clippers into the unknown – rather, unknown, except for the knowledge that, if you make a mistake, you could cut your sheep’s neck pretty badly.
If one end of the error spectrum are nicks and cuts, then the other end of the spectrum is second cuts, which are short pieces of fleece that weren’t taken off with the first pass of the clippers. Second cuts cause all sorts of problems– if incorporated into yarn, they make it weaker, and cause it to pill more quickly– and so it’s important to keep them to a minimum. In fact, our instructors told us that we must not be so afraid of cutting the sheep, because, otherwise, all we’d do is make second cuts. I wasn’t so good at not being afraid (but, still, I nicked a few sheep).
The more you know about your sheep, the easier she’ll be for you to shear – and since she’s covered in wool, it can sometimes be hard to tell. If you know she’s fat, it’ll be, as Emily says, “Easy, like shearing a beach ball.” If she’s skinny, you’re going to have to work a little harder to navigate around the bony hips, shoulders, and spinal processes. Does she have two teats, or are there four (ewes sometimes have an extra vestigial set) to watch out for? If she’s a finewool sheep with Merino heritage (hello, Cormo), she’s going to be covered in the wrinkles and extra skin that those breeds were bred to have (more skin = more hair follicles = more wool per sheep), and you’re going to have to make sure not to nick those. If she’s in good health, she should shear easily. If she’s doing poorly, though, the lanolin (which usually melts a bit, and helps to lubricate the clippers) won’t flow so freely, and instead stays thick, like wax, and gums up your clippers.
I was continually amazed at the intimacy of it, and humbled by the amount of strength and knowledge required – I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like it in my past year of shepherding. It’s quite a thing to know there where, why, and how of every single inch of every single sheep, and then use that knowledge to navigate a potentially dangerous situation (those clippers are sharp), and end up with a valuable product (7 or 8 lbs of wool per sheep).
That said, it’s also hot, sweaty, greasy, difficult, dirty, exhausting, poopy, smelly, frustrating, and sometimes bloody. Dragging ourselves back to the hotel after the first day, I told Erin, “If anyone ever tells me shearing’s like a beautiful, graceful, athletic dance between the shearer and the sheep, I’m gonna punch ‘em in the face,” and there were plenty of jokes about, “Any job where your rear end’s gotta be higher than your head– that’s not a good job!”
After making those diagonal passes down the sheep’s right side, all there is left to do is clear off the right leg and hindquarter.
See how Erin is using her left hand to put all her weight into the sheep’s right flank? That serves two purposes– 1) it straightens out the right leg, so that it’s easier to shear, and 2) it tightens up the skin, so that there’s less risk of it getting caught in the clippers. Honestly, there’s so much skin-tightening, head-holding, ear-grabbing, leg-straightening, and teat-saving done with the non-clipper-holding-hand, you might as well say that it did all the work! Nevertheless, both Erin and I had pretty sore right arms from holding on to those clippers! Not only are they pretty heavy, but they also 1) vibrate and 2) are dripping with motor oil and lanolin. It’s not easy.
But, once you’ve cleaned off that last leg, you’re done!
All in all, I found that my favorite thing about shearing is the intense focus and drive that it gives you – as soon as you turn on the clippers, the world contracts to you, your sheep, and the noise of your machine (this is a bit of a lie. I had Emily coaching me – literally holding my hand in some parts – through my whole first sheep, which was the only reason my sheep looked so good.). The only important thing is getting the fleece off the sheep, and making sure they’re both in good condition by the end. No matter what happens – you cut your sheep? you feel tired? your sheep escaped from you? you seriously don’t think you can do it? It started raining and the barn roof started leaking onto your head? – you cannot and must not give up. You can do it because you must (does anyone remember the end of Bambi, where he’s been shot by a hunter, but there’s a forest fire, and the Great Prince of the Forest comes up and says, “Bambi! You must get up!”? It’s like that.), and I haven’t had that feeling since I got to help Susan pull a stuck lamb last spring.
It’s definitely a heck of a rush (although maybe that’s just from spending 30 minutes with all the blood going to my head!), and I can’t wait for the chance to do it again!
All words and images used in this post unless otherwise stated are © Caroline Fryar. The photos of Erin shearing and accompanying text were first published on the Juniper Moon Farm blog here and are used with the kind permission of Susan Gibbs and Caroline Fryar; the photo of the Crofter is © Dave Wheeler, and the photos of Caroline’s knitting are © Caroline Fryar. Thank you all for allowing your work to appear on the WOVEMBER blog