What I Learned from Shearing School

First things first - I won't be a shearer. Well, at least not until I can actually put some muscle on my body that currently does not exist. It took me about a day and a half into the three-day course to figure that out. But I didn't pack up and go home, like I thought I might. I decided to stick around, and I'm so glad I did. The knowledge I gained throughout the whole experience was so useful.

Merino is not the only wool out there

Have you gone into a yarn shop and peeked at all the tags of the different skeins? How many of them had merino as a component? I would wager a very large portion of them, especially the ones that are actually wool. I was told that the Merino industry has spent a good part of the last 10 years really pushing their wool. I mean, it's understandable. We all love a soft yarn, don't we? But there's so much more out there!

Targhee, Rambouillet, Cormo, Corriedale, Polypay, Blue-Faced Leicester, and the list seriously goes on. These are just some of the breeds that other students in the class owned. Many of these sheep owners didn't know where they could sell their wool, except to large wool buyers. And those wool buyers typically end up shipping all that wool to China, who, in turn, processes it into cheap clothing and sells it right back to us. Does that seem unsavory to anyone but me?

There is a reason local wool costs so much

Think about the average small producer. They own typically between 4 and 40 head of sheep. These are sheep that are (usually) well-cared for, and sometimes are even pets. These producers put all of their time and money into doing right by these animals, and in many cases that I know, doing right by the environment as well.

So let's walk through this as if someone wanted to produce their own yarn from their flock. A farmer raises the sheep (which is WORK, my friends), either pays for the shearing or shears themselves, skirts the fleece (losing a good portion of that wool due to contamination and poor quality areas), and sends it off to a mill for processing. A local mill, who also has their own bills to pay and equipment to maintain, charges somewhere around $30 - $35 per pound of outgoing wool. The incoming fleece may be 10 pounds, but after washing, carding, and spinning, they may end up with less than 5 pounds total. Which then (if they want) has to be dyed and marketed. This is why local wool is expensive, but absolutely and completely worth it.

Wool is amazing

It's water-repellent. It's flame retardant. It's insulating, moisture-wicking, and antimicrobial. How many other fibers can you think of that hold all of those traits, and natural ones at that? I cannot think of a single one.

Another thing that was prevalent while shearing was lanolin. If you're not familiar with lanolin, it's the substance that gives raw fleece the term "grease wool" or "greasy wool". It is a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals, and is a protectant against the climate and environment. In fact, after shearing, it only takes 3 days of growth for the lanolin to be redistributed across the sheep's body (in case you were worried they would be cold).

Lanolin is anti-bacterial, and you'll see it as a base in a lot of hand/body products. I encouraged those with cuts from the clippers to keep the lanolin moving on their hands as well. I have wondered if all shearer's have very soft hands, as I certainly did after 3 days, though I refrained from asking to touch all of our instructors' hands - lest I be the creepy student.

It is possible to redefine "success"

So I wasn't able to shear an entire ewe. Granted, they were 200 lb pregnant Hampshires that were full of food and water, and everyone struggled, but I struggled a bit more than most. I had a moment of feeling like a total failure that I let myself wallow in. And then I decided to stay and observe. Our instructors were very supportive and kind, and full of knowledge through their decades of experience. More specifically, they understood what part of the industry I'm in, and were able to cater to that with certain discussions and demonstrations.

I learned how to throw a fleece, how to partially skirt a fleece, and was able to take one home for practicing. I was able to also help other students finish their shearing by jumping in when someone got tired. I was able to assist the other students with guidance from my vantage point. I walked away from the school feeling completely empowered, because now I know what I feel passionate about (pure wool, y'all!) and what direction I want to go. And I'm so excited to take you all along with me!

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