Early spring is the time for shearing at the Wisconsin farm where I buy raw fleece to spin into yarn. In March, I went to Bear Creek Sheep Station to select my fleeces as they were shorn. Owners Bob and Penny Leder steward a farm-to-table grass-fed meat operation. They time breeding their flock so lambs arrive around the same time as lush spring grass. Their ewes convert grass into milk to feed those lambs. Shearing before babies arrive makes the ewes more comfortable while giving birth, and makes it easier for newborns to find their mothers’ teats.
Since our ancient ancestors began domesticating plants and animals, sheep have provided both food (meat and milk) and fiber. After a few thousand years of animal husbandry, most sheep no longer shed their coats naturally each year. So they need to be shorn. An overgrown fleece can weigh so much it becomes hard for the animal to see, to walk, even to breathe. All that wool is hot for the animal, and it can harbor parasites that threaten the sheep’s health. Even flocks raised primarily for meat are shorn – even if it costs as much to shear as the fleece earns when sold to a wool pool or coop.
The sad truth is there isn’t a great market for much of the wool produced in the Upper Midwest. The price per pound of raw (greasy) wool is unlikely to cover the cost of raising and shearing the animal and transporting the wool to a broker or mill. Some farms just compost or burn their clip.
The Fibershed movement is working to change that. The non-profit organization’s mission is to transform regional fiber systems through climate-beneficial agriculture, rebuilding regional manufacturing, and reconnecting end-users with the source of their fiber. Like the local food movement, Fibershed envisions a world where, once again, people know what they’re wearing, where it came from, how it was produced, how to care for it throughout its useful life, and what happens to the fiber afterwards. Like farm-to-table, this is farm-to-closet. The movement has spread from its origins in northern California. A northern Wisconsin fibershed is forming now – just in time for producers to juggle volunteer organization tasks at the same time as shearing and lambing.
It will take time and effort to impact the market and processing capacity for wool in this area. In the meantime, some wool producers embrace alternative markets. The Leders sell some fleeces to spinners like me. Others they have had processed into quilt batting at a small carding mill. A friend of mine who keeps bees wants part of the Leder’s wool clip to insulate hives. A friend of a friend used some to rechink her log cabin.
The latest thing in gardening is pelletized waste wool. The wool shorn from the belly and britch is normally thrown to the side by the shearer because it contains dung and vegetable matter you don’t want spread to the rest of the fleece. Instead of wasting those nutrients, that wool can be compressed to create a high-nitrogen fertilizer that makes poultry manure seem paltry in comparison. They say it also sequesters carbon and improves soil’s moisture retention. I haven’t tried wool pellets yet, but parts of the fleeces I buy that contain significant amounts of foreign matter do go into my garden.
Sheep pick up vegetable matter from what they’re fed when fresh grass isn’t available and whatever else is growing where they graze. if you’ve ever combed burrs out of a dog’s coat you know that’s no fun. So I care how the animals are grazed because good pasture produces good wool from both inside (nutrition) and outside.
Large mills use carbonization and chemical processes to remove vegetable matter from the shorn wool. Wool may be immersed in a solution of sulfuric acid, baked, passed through a series of rollers to crush the vegetable matter into dust, shaken to remove the dust, neutralized with sodium carbonate, then bathed in hydrogen peroxide to bleach the wool.
To learn more about how and why sheep are shorn, I recommend this video featuring animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin and shearer/author Stephany Wilkes.
I admire the ingenuity that helped drive the Industrial Revolution (much of which was driven by textile production). But my small-scale method for processing is much simpler: I either sort out and compost parts of the fleece with a significant amount of vegetable matter, or I pick it out by hand.
Some of it drops out as I wash the raw fleece, a process called scouring that
removes soil, sheep sweat, and lanolin from the fiber. In my rural area, our water is pumped from our own well and wastewater goes into our own septic system. Those realities frame choices I make about how to scour raw fleece, as does the fact that our water is very hard. Detergents interact differently with the dissolved minerals in hard water. There are many methods for cleaning fleece, but I’ve settled on a small-batch method using a detergent formulated to work in hard water at a temperature that our on-demand water heater can produce.
Once the fleeces I bought at this shearing have been scoured, I’ll dye them with plants I grow or gather myself – primarily goldenrod, black walnut hulls, and homegrown Japanese indigo. I’ve plant-dyed plenty of mill-spun yarn and the colors are gorgeous. But the marriage of local wool with local color is infinitely more satisfying to me. Whatever I make from the yarn I spin from that wool reflects my local landscape. And as regular readers of 45 Degrees North know, I love where I live.
There’s an awful lot of “I” in these descriptions: I scour, I dye, I spin. But the yarn would not exist without the sheep and the people who raise them. I come to the party after their hard work is done — breeding, lambing, pasture rotation, winter feeding, shearing and so much more.
One of the fleeces I bought this year came from a young ram, a Rambouillet-cross that Bob reported was so enthusiastic about his first breeding season he hardly took time to eat. A consequent weight loss in a less robust animal could have damaged the wool. In this case, it didn’t – I checked. Parts of his fleece were caked with dried mud. That will wash out, but it makes me think he was rambunctious even after his time with the ewes. When that one was next in line for shearing, Bob said to the shearer, “This next one’s a ram.” “And I bet you’d like me to keep him that way,” the shearer joked. That young ram stayed calm and curious despite the unfamiliar buzz of electric shear as he got his first haircut.
There’s quite a bit of work to do to transform that fleece from the raw fiber into a sweater for myself. But when it’s done and I wear that garment, you know I’ll have to tell the story of that ram’s youthful ardor. I’ve nicknamed him Wham Bam, the Rambouillet Ram.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.