We sheared our ewes on Saturday, January 27th, and I’ve been working on skirting and preparing the Winter Shearing fleeces ever since. With fifty-three fleeces to skirt, this will take some time. Skirting, evaluating, and photographing the fleeces is the final step in our year-long production of top-quality wool, and I honestly would have trouble turning this part of the process over to anyone else. Not only do I maintain total control over the quality of our product, but I also learn a lot about the health and well-being of the flock itself. In the same way that our hair can reflect our level of nutrition, our health and/or illnesses, and our daily habits (environmental damage, etc.), the wool that we harvest from our sheep can tell me a lot about the needs of our sheep. This last step is critical in so many ways!
My skirting work actually begins on the shearing floor, where I minimize contamination of the fleece by the very messy top of head and back of neck and by second cuts (when the shearer cuts the fiber too far from the skin of the sheep and goes back for a closer cut; these short pieces then fall into the sheared fleece). When the shearer finally frees the fleece from the sheep, I know it will make my skirting work indoors easier if I carefully gather the fleece into my arms without twisting or folding it. I simply “scrunch” it together and gently carry it to the bed sheet already spread out and labelled with the sheep’s name, number, breed and color. I get the best results indoors if I carefully toss the fleece onto the sheet, allowing it to naturally open and spread a bit before bundling. We then gather the corners of the sheet to bundle the fleece, load it into the truck and, eventually, bring it into the dining room for skirting.
I usually skirt our fleeces in the same order that we sheared them, once again trying to avoid contamination from one fleece to the next. I begin with white Romeldale, and then move on to the colored Romeldale — in approximate order of depth of color — ending with the darkest charcoal or black. In this way, the colored wool does not contaminate the white. I clean all of my work area thoroughly before switching to the Romneys, which I again skirt in the same color order.
If I’ve done my job correctly during shearing, the fleece will lie cut-side up when the bundle is opened on the dining room table. I remove any second-cuts and contaminants that might have been missed earlier, and then with a flick of the wrist, I flip the fleece onto the table, releasing it from its bundle. A good shearer like ours will remove the fleece in one piece, so my first project is to spread the fleece out with the neck on one end of the table and the dock at the other. Generally, the wool from the belly, poll (top of the head), and back of the neck has been removed in the barn. This wool is usually heavily contaminated with bits of hay and even kernels of corn. Failing to remove these sections will scatter all of those contaminants throughout the fleece, so I will usually pull off the belly, poll, and neck fleece as the shearer frees them. The wool on the neck is often some of the nicest on the sheep, however, so if I want to keep it for processing into combed top (which removes these contaminants), I shove the beautiful neck wool into a pillow case and include that in the bundle. In this way, the wool can be weighed and credited to the ewe (and prepared for sale as combed top) without it contaminating the rest of the raw fleece.
Once the fleece is spread out on the table, I can begin skirting in earnest. First I remove all wool that is too short for use — less than 2.5″ for Romeldales, and under 3″ for Romney. What is left is all usable fleece, so I go back around, separating any wool that is dirty or weathered. This removed wool is set aside for processing into roving (Romney) or combed top (Romeldale) for our processed fiber customers. I pull samples of fleece from a minimum of five different areas to photograph against a ruler (to show our customers the variation within the fleece) and then test for strength. If there is a weakness in the fleece, I identify whether that weakness is in a well-defined area (and if it is, I simply skirt this section off), or if it is found across the entire fleece. Even with the best of care, we will occasionally end up with one or more fleeces that are weak due to environmental factors. This year, for example, I expected to find problems in our yearling and lamb fleeces due to the disaster weekend last summer when we were out of town and our flock-sitter forgot to come and feed our sheep. Thankfully I’ve so far found only one fleece that was partially weakened, and I simply removed that section since the rest of the fleece was strong.
Our ultimate goal in producing wool is to end up with fleeces that are so uniform in length, crimp, and handle that it is difficult (if not impossible) to determine which end is the front and which the back. The wool should be the same everywhere! Not all of our fleeces achieve this goal, but we are working in that direction. Although our fleeces this year are a bit greasier than usual (no idea why, since most of the ewes have produced for us before and were less greasy in previous years), they are also the nicest we’ve had. I think they’re absolutely stunning! I know our customers are going to be thrilled with what we have to offer — when I am finally finished skirting and ready to sell! That is still at least a week away, but I’m working at it. Stay tuned for a better estimate early next week.