Before we had sheep of our own, I loved to knit sweaters for our then-young children. There was something about the feel of the wool and the thought of our son and daughter toasty warm in the resulting garment. Although I was a busy young mother, I somehow found time in the evenings to knit and purl my way to a closet full of colorful sweaters, which are now safely tucked away for future grandchildren.
Eventually my interest in wool took me to a farm in Iowa City, where I bought our first sheep. Little did I know the journey that had begun with that first purchase. We now overwinter fifty to sixty sheep who usually give us seventy to eighty-five lambs each spring! My job is physically hard and dirty most days, but I have a sense of satisfaction because I love what I do: the sheep, their lambs, and the wool they produce.
My work is both seasonal and cyclic. At the end of each January and through the first half of February, I’m occupied by the wool our ewe flock produces. We always shear on the last weekend of January, and then I spend the next few weeks skirting the sheared fleeces. The fleece is removed from the sheep in much the same way as footed pajamas come off the child. The shearer creates a “pajama zipper” with a single clipping from one back leg up their belly to the chin, and then he shears off the fleece as a single piece. Each fleece is bundled in a bed sheet right after shearing, allowing it to breathe as it awaits my attention. Each bundle is stacked in my dining room, based on breed and color. Together they crowd around my dining room table like tiered spectators in a sports stadium, watching the dining table at center-stage where all the skirting takes place.
As each bundle is brought forward from the “stands” and is opened, I can mentally hear the oohs and aahs of the crowd as the beauty of that individual fleece registers with the bundled onlookers. No two fleeces are exactly alike; each has its own style and character. Some are short stapled and others are incredibly long for only one year of growth; some are lustrous and shiny like high-gloss paint while others are flat and chalky-looking. Some are so crimpy that it’s hard to straighten and measure their staple length while others — with looser waves and curves — easily lay flat against my ruler. Our fleeces are so individual and I come to know them so well that I can often walk down the aisle at the Iowa State Fair and recognize the source of each fleece, including those sheep no longer at our farm. “Oh, this one looks like it came from Josiah. Yes, look — it was entered by the farm where he now lives.” “Look here — this must be from Kaitlin, entered by her farm in Wisconsin!” Each fleece has made an impression that remains for years after the sheep has moved on.
As each fleece is dumped onto my dining room table, I spread it out so that the cut portion of the fleece lies facedown. I note the neck of the fleece and the dock. And after the legs become obvious, I finally see the entire fleece lying before me. In my mind’s eye, I see it on the sheep just days before. “Oh, look, there’s the spot that Jypsi has on her side!” or “There’s the dark topline on O’Chloe!”
At this stage, my obsessive drive for a clean fleece kicks in. I begin along the edges, removing wool that is contaminated by straw, hay, chaff, and second cuts (small pieces of wool that were cut from the sheep in more than one layer). This contaminated wool is thrown into a scrap bag that will eventually be weighed and discarded. The next step is my favorite: assessing the wool that was protected by the coat. The fleece just outside the coat contains dirt and shows signs of weathering. It will be tossed into the bag of “seconds,” the resting place of nice-but-not-good-enough fleece. Just a bit closer to the center of the fleece lies the wool that occasionally peeked out from the coat — its quality is nice, but not perfect. This requires a judgement call as to whether it stays or goes. If it doesn’t meet my standards, it gets added to the “seconds” bag. By the time I’m finished, the fleece on the table is beautiful, with a generally consistent length, crimp, and luster and almost no contaminants. My goal in both breeding and skirting is to provide a uniform product.
As I finish each fleece, I weigh everything: the scrap fleece that was too dirty or short, the seconds that will be sent for processing into roving or combed top, and the primary fleece that looks as if the sheep lived in our house rather than the barn. I photograph samples and record the weights and various traits into the computer for later data crunching. Finally, I fold in both sides of the fleece and roll it from tail to neck, carefully placing the rolled fleece into the plastic bag in which it will be shipped, along with a card showing the ewe’s name. As I stand back to admire this fleece one more time before moving on, I am always — always! — struck by its beauty: the evenly spaced crimp, the light-reflecting luster that gives the fleece depth, and the color unique to the specific ewe. Everything comes together to create this one fleece, different from all others and perfect in its own way. Yes, by now you can see why I’m a shepherdess. For me, there is nothing better than what I do!