Mindful Fiber: September Shear and Morehouse Farm

Wild breeds of sheep naturally shed their wool when the weather warms. There are still a few ‘primative’ North American breeds that have more hair than wool (like dogs and their undercoats), and ‘heirloom’ breeds like Shetlands shed their wool due to a natural break in fiber growth in the spring. However, most breeds were domesticated long, long ago. Commodity and continuous growth won out over sheepy independence and ‘commercial’ sheep breeds require some form of human involvement to loose that wool.

super wooly

This guy (photographed by McBadger) has evaded the shearers. One New Zealand ram managed to dodge shearing for 6 years – his fleece weighed 60 pounds when he was finally caught.

Farm Sanctuary, a domestic farm animal rescue organization in California, has an excellent article about the necessities of sheep shearing. For today, we’ll focus on the process.

So how does it happen? How does one separate the wool from the wool bearer? Well, it takes some kind of clippers. And a lot of strength. In this video from Plumpton College, the basic method of shearing a sheep is demonstrated.

Certainly looks uncomfortable for the sheep, but he’s keeping her still and stretching her skin to prevent cuts.

Large wool operations have specialized sheds and hire a team of professionals and their electric clippers at shearing time. Machine shears were developed in the 1880s and were in widespread use by the 1940s. A flock can be shorn in a few days to a week or so depending on the number of animals. Many professional shearing groups take pride in how quickly they can work their way through a flock. There are competitions, awards and prestige associated with speed. While this may be good for the workers (who are paid by the critter), it isn’t necessarily good for the sheep.

When numbers or farming practices don’t call for machine shearing (or folks are feeling traditional), blade shearing is used.

She also talks about the ‘whys’ of the process.

There are obvious advantages to blade shearing, particularly in colder climates. The inch or so of wool left behind protects of sheep from cold and sunburn, reduces stress on sheep, reduces how much they need to eat after shearing, and results in heavier birth weight of lambs.

Sheep are typically shorn in spring, preferably before lambing (there is more room in the barn and it’s easier for the lambs to nurse without all that wool). Because of demand and the high price of wool, some flocks are shorn twice a year. An estimated one million sheep die of exposure each year because of practices like this.

Morehouse Farm in New York shears their Merino sheep once a year. Merino sheep are a special case for shearers. One of the oldest breeds of sheep with some of the softest fiber, Merinos are also covered in wrinkly folds of skin. Because of the folds, going at them with clippers is a scary business. It takes two or three days to shear the entire Morehouse flock. The resulting fleece is also processed, spun and dyed in the US. From Morehouse Farm’s FAQ:

Are your Merino sheep happy sheep?
Our sheep are well cared for and we treat them with kindness.

For the September giveaway, I’ve got a whole cardigan!

charmuse

Charmeuse!

It seems to be the perfect weight for a seasonal transition sweater and probably goes with anything. There is enough yarn there to make the largest size and after perusal of the pattern, it seems like a nice relaxing project. For a chance to win this kit, just leave a comment on this post!

If you hate the color (I was going for elegant and neutral), I’ll include the receipt so you can request an exchange. There’s a really pretty pink…if you like pink.

You can find Morehouse Farm on Facebook, Twitter, and their website (which is where you order the yarn and fleece).

Best of luck – the giveaway will close September 30th so comment early (but in this case, not often)!

I’ll point out that all the sheep in these videos and pictures have their tails docked. The link claims that this is necessary for the health of the sheep. Many animal welfare organizations disagree.

As a curiosity: In 1994, Australian scientists invented a way of removing the wool from sheep without shearing. They inject the sheep with a protein that causes a break in the wool growth, then wrap them in a jackety net. A few weeks later, the fleece peels right off. I also read somewhere that Australian scientists have developed a robot for shearing sheep.

44 thoughts on “Mindful Fiber: September Shear and Morehouse Farm

  1. Barbara

    Yet again another fabulous give-away. Thanks so much for all the info, as well. I wish it was easier to find those kinds of yarn in Canada. I’m not sure if there are just fewer sheep etc raised here, or it’s just harder to search out the farms on-line.

  2. eidolons

    Wow. Now that was eye-opening. It almost hurt to watch that first sheep. The second seemed much.. calmer. I desperately want sheep (as I’m sure you can guess) and will definitely have to think about all of this when the time comes!

  3. Amanda

    Wow, this was very informative. I didn’t know people used hand shears to shear sheep, I had only ever seen electric clippers used.

  4. britt

    I have used their yarn before, they are a great company to support. The sweater is pretty shapeless, but that is perfect for transitional wear, throw it on, off, tuck, tie, size up size down. EASY and such a nice finished product!

  5. Susanna

    Interesting post. Although the injection with the wool falling off seems a bit scary to me. If I was a sheep, robot sheers might also not be a way to go.

  6. sprite

    One of the events I’ve done at Maryland Sheep & Wool is to watch the sheep shearing demonstration where farmers show how they shear sheep by hand. They definitely take pride in their abilities, are able to take off the whole fleece in a surprisingly short period of time (given how long it takes for me to get a haircut), and seems to stress out the sheep way less than those whose farmers are shearing them with electric clippers back in the barns.

  7. zuzu

    As I read this I was thinking, “Yes, merino is lovely to knit with. But I’ve done that.” Then I saw that stunning sweater, and I thought, “But not with Morehouse Merino!” Thanks for another great opportunity!

  8. Dorothy

    Thanks for the info. on shearing. I hadn’t thought about leaving some wool on the sheep to keep them warm (I probably should have!)

    The yarn is gorgeous!

  9. Nancy

    Thanks for sharing the videos. They were very interesting. Amazing little animals that provide such beautiful fiber for us.
    Im hoping I am picked.

  10. Carole (cjj)

    Oh This would be a great birthday present for me (today is my ? birthday). Thank you for the great info and videos, so informative.

  11. Toni

    What an education you are giving your readers! I’ve seen shorn sheep in winter and wondered how on earth they would live. HOW CAN SANE PEOPLE DO THAT??
    God bless Morehouse Farm for their kindness to the sheep.

  12. Amber

    What a cool post. I have often wondered what merino sheep look like. It is my favorite wool. I love the color yarn you picked for the give a way too. I love that you are giving away the pattern and the yarn as a kit, very thoughtful. Thanks for the chance to win.

  13. Becky L.

    I do love merino. That color is beautiful. Thanks for the shearing info. It was pretty interesting to watch.

  14. Jean-Sophie

    I love the lines of the cardigan and the neutral color. My move to Santa Fe has me looking forward to colder weather and making me want to get back to knitting … thus sweater would be a great place to start.

  15. KM

    I’ve loved watching the sheep shearing at the fair each year. I think so much of it has to do with the handler/shearer. I’ve seen both in person…the electric clippers and the old school hand clippers. And there seemed to be this trust between the sheep and the man we’ve watched. I love the soft leather moccasins he wore and how they let him work with the animal. I sure would love to learn to spin and take a project from fleece to sweater. Until then…I’ll enjoy yarns I can buy. And even better, possibly win.

  16. Jani

    Beautiful cardigan – and you’re right, the color is a very elegant neutral! Thanks for the chance to win.

  17. Coralee

    As always Emily, you have enlightened many! My brother and his family have sheep, I’ve seen the shearing process before and it can be very unsettling. However, with the ‘bad’ there is also some good….Morehouse Merino, aaahhh…wonderful! Pattern looks great too.
    Thanks so much for all you give to the knitting community 🙂

  18. Tia6

    Very interesting info about shearing! I’ve seen sheep shearing at the wonderful Harvest Festival in Minnesota – seeing a whole fleece separated from a sheep is pretty impressive and no, it doesn’t look very comfortable for the sheep!

  19. Samantha

    Wow, I think I found a new blog to follow. That was very educational, and I will definitely have to search for more “sheep friendly” farms as I shop for wool yarn. The cardigan looks awesome, and I do love that color. Thanks for the opportunities to enter giveaways!

  20. Wendi Abeberry

    How interesting it was to actually see and hear the explainations of how sheep sheering works. And such back breaking work for the sheerer! I first watched the man with the electric sheers and thought “well good thing he’s a big guy, you’d need to be in order to move an animal that size around like that”. But then seeing the young woman doing it the traditional way, wow! Got to give her credit, she certainly hasn’t choosen an easy career. But she seems to love whatnshe does and that’s great. I have an increased respect for the whole process, thank you for sharing the videos. I would love to win the yarn you have so kindly decided to share. In any case my next cyber stop is the Morehouse Farm website. Thanks again!

  21. Claire Bradbury

    Thanks for these really interesting videos, I’m fascinated by the whole wool process – would love a follow on about dying and spinning!? I stumbled across your blog recently and am hooked.
    Love that yarn, perfect color – elegant and neutral, just as you said.

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