Us fibre farmers are a hard-working lot. We work early mornings and often unplanned, late nights and we don’t get days off for bad weather or out-of-town visitors or the flu. Like toddlers, our animals don’t care if we woke up with a headache or have to get to the dentist, they just want to be fed and taken care of. All of them. Everyday. (“Didn’t I just feed you kids supper last night?”)
And so when shearing time comes along for the small-scale fibre farmer and you know you’re going to have to find a way to somehow squeeze in another 8+ hours of work into your already full schedule, the last thing you want to do is draw it out any longer than necessary. Get the fleece off the critter as calmly and quickly as possible, maybe do some herd maintenance like checking teeth, giving shots and trimming toenails while you’re at it, shove the fibre into a bag or two, thank the rare and wonderous volunteers who have given so generously of their time to help you and get back to your other farm chores.
But wait! You’re not done! Don’t be that guy!
This is the stage many fleeces are at when (if?) they arrive at the mill doorstep. We open the bag and find what would otherwise have been a beautiful, lovely fleece loaded with vegetable matter, dung tags and whatever else was swept up off the shearing room floor. Besides the usual culprits like straw and wood chips, (gasp! wood chips! no! no! no!) we have found rocks, branches, bailing twine, pine cones and paper clips. We have seen bags of wool that were so loaded with grass seed, we could have patched our lawn with pieces of them. Large commercial mills use chemicals to help dissolve vegetable matter – we have no such magic.
Whatever is in your fleece when you bring it to us will very likely still be in the finished yarn.
It is said that a fleeces value can be made or ruined in the 5 minutes prior to shearing. Set-up is key. Here are a few things we do here at Inca Dinca Do Farm to increase the value of our alpaca fleeces and make the job of cleaning them easier:
- Assign each of your helpers a job. Someone to sweep, someone to bring animals in and out, someone to gather fibre as it comes off animals, some else to sort fibre, etc.
- Arrange your shearing area is such a way as to have the animals penned close by. If you can, create a chute for them to walk (on lead or on their own) to the shearing matt. (Avoid having a tug-o-war trying to get them to the matt!)
- Have a clean, straw-free surface to work in. Plywood or rubber matts work well. Do this even if you have a shearing table – it makes keeping things clean so much easier.
- Shear like colored animals in groups. This will help to avoid contaminating fleece colors. (Best if you can start with the lighter animals and work your way to the darks.)
- We use an air compressor to blow our alpacas out just prior to shearing. They not only tolerate this, but seem to really enjoy the feeling – they will actually push each other out of the way to get into the path of the air. The benefit? Amazing amounts of dust come off and our shearing blades last twice as long!
- Have any medications prepped and ready. Trim toenails, do shots and check teeth AFTER the alpaca is sheared. Sweep area before next animal is bought in.
- Finally, have a separate sorting area. A table to spread the fleece out on where you can sort, skirt and pick out the worst of the vegetable matter and any second cuts. Have your bags and labels ready to go – for each animal have a bag for the “prime” (blanket portion of the fleece) and another one for “seconds” (short or courser fibre, still usable). Use anything but black garbage bags! (Moths love dirty fibre. They also like dark places. Don’t do it.) Clear plastic is best but even inside out feed bags can work. And then have actual garbage bags for the garbage fleece (britch, topknot, birds nest, lower legs).
Sheep shearing is no different, with the exception of the air compressor – sheep are not dusty so much as they are sticky! The lovely advantage that a sheep’s fleece remains whole after it is removed – this makes skirting and sorting a breeze.
Now here is the crucial and final step that many farmers seem to forget:
Within a few days of shearing, we pull out the prime fleeces, spread them out on the table again and spend the necessary time to pick out the vegetable matter, second cuts, etc. Some fleeces require more time than others, but 10-30 minutes per fleece should be expected. Check your fleece for adequate staple length (spinning requires no less than 3.5″) and decide what is might be best suited for. From fine, beautiful lace weight (maybe blended with silk?) to courser but perfectly good yarn for socks, or maybe even core spun for rugs, every fleece has a purpose.
And now the fleece is ready for the mill!