I visited the Cornell sheep farm in Dryden NY on the Shearing School weekend March 2-3. Several local farmers came out to learn techniques about shearing sheep. The class was taught by one of the top shearers in the US, world renown Doug Rathke who obtained training from New Zealand Wool.
When I first entered the barn, I could smell the sheep, and after walking a few steps forward, I could see all of the adorable sheep huddled together in a pen. They were all leaning toward one direction, and their gazes led me to see that there were several other sheep in another pen at the other side of the barn. The sheep at the other side had much shorter hair and several looked like babies. It was so wonderful to realize that these sheep have communal relationships and are attentive to each other’s place and position. In the photograph below, we can see that the sheep are bundled up together even though there is enough free room to spread out. This was so heart-warming and made me feel happy for them.
Right next to this pen, groups of 3-4 people partnered together to carefully shear a sheep. A woman named Nancy gave me more information about the sheep and their fibers. She explained that the sheep were of a mixed breed- Dorset and Finn – and had medium quality wool. She explained that the sheep’s hair would eventually shed in the Spring if it was not sheared. Shedding is something that the sheep can do naturally, but she explained that it would take longer for the sheep’s hair to grow back and it would be of a lower quality. The sheep depend on seasonal shearing based on how it has been bred. Nancy indicated that the wool on the sheep’s belly and legs are of the lowest quality because it is where soil, twigs, and grasses accumulate overtime. These areas are typically sheared first. In the photograph below we can see a sheep that is being positioned to get its belly hair sheared.
The hair on the sheep’s back is considered to be the highest quality since it does not have as much debris. The environment is what mostly affects the quality of the sheep’s back hair–rain, snow, etc. Below is a photograph of the process of shearing the sheep’s back hair. Ideally, the hair is sheared uniformly instead of in patches. Notice that the interior coat of the sheep is much cleaner and appears more softer than the photograph above where the hair looks soiled and course.
The process of shearing sheep is a specialized skill. It not only requires physical endurance to be able to hold the sheep if it starts to kick or fidget, but it also requires knowledge about the sheep’s anatomy to prevent injuries during shearing. Some questions that may arise are: What joints will protrude if the sheep is siting upright versus lying down? What is the ideal position for a person to be in while shearing a certain area of the sheep?
This experience was very eye-opening, and it allowed me to learn more about the raw material phase of wool products. In a lifecycle assessment wool article I’ve found, the raw material processing stages are limited to: sheep breeding, scouring, dyeing, spinning, and throwing. Shearing is a process that is left out, but based on my experience at the Shearing School, it takes a lot of energy to complete–human and mechanical energy used for the electric shears. I think that the process of shearing sheep is something that cannot ever be fully mechanized.
People will always be a part of this process because of our sensitivity. In the photographs above, the sheep was calmly laying down while Rothke was shearing it because the sheep did not feel threatened. Rathke is an expert at shearing and knows exactly how the sheep should be positioned. He is aware of what can make the sheep uncomfortable and was expanding his knowledge to the other farmers in the shearing demonstration so that they can gain his same sensitivity.