Wet wool

Shearing is this coming weekend, and my days are filled with advance preparations: rounding up our volunteers, setting up the clipboards for recording everything we do, planning three meals plus snacks. This and more helps create a successful harvesting of wool from our fifty ewes.

I have always kept track of local weather forecasts. And now that I work outside for much of my day, it helps to have insight into the impending conditions. that will likely greet me. I dress for whatever I might encounter as I move through the day’s tasks and for what the skies might throw at me.

Shearing makes me even more prone to make time for the weather forecast — often in both the morning and evening. If the long-range prediction for the day is for dry weather, I keep checking to make sure it stays that way. And if the forecast is for rain or wet conditions, I continually check back as I hope for a shift to drier conditions. You may wonder why the weather would be such an issue for shearing day; after all, aren’t the people and sheep inside the barn for the event? Yes, they are, but the reason I check isn’t for our comfort. The whole purpose is to avoid wet wool.

The common advice is to bring the sheep into the barn for the final day or two before shearing so that the wool has time to dry. Wool can carry over 35% of its weight in water, and that water can create numerous problems during and after shearing. Imagine being the shearer and hugging a soggy animal — the moisture will quickly soak through his jeans, socks and slippers as he maneuvers the animal through the various shearing positions. He will spend the day in a cold barn, wearing these uncomfortably damp clothes. Even when our fleeces are dry, some weigh upwards of 20 pounds and our shearers must be careful to avoid pulling the skin. When the fleece is wet, this pulling can become a nightmare. The wet wool adds weight to the sheared portions and pulls at the attached unsheared wool and skin. This pulling can cause the clippers to cut skin rather than wool, injuring the sheep. Once the wool is off the sheep, it’s impossible to get an accurate weight (for my records and for the sale of the fleece) since the wool is heavy with moisture.

We bundle each sheared fleece into a separate bed sheet, identifying it with the ewe’s name and number, and then each bundle comes into the house for further preparation before its sale. Until I can get to the bundles, they sit along the walls of my dining room. If the fleeces are wet, I can’t really put the soggy bundles on the hardwood floors in the dining room (it would damage the floors), nor can I put them on the carpeting (where it will soil and mold the carpet). When bundled up this way, the fleece itself will begin to mold within a very short period of time — and mold is bad when selling fleeces. Not only will it discolor the fleece, but it can weaken the integrity of the wool fiber.

Bred ewes in the Sheep Barn with windows and doors open — and condensation dripping from the ceiling.

When we had only a few sheep, wet wool wasn’t such a big thing. Each year there would be a few fleeces that were a bit too wet for the bundle to sit in the dining room. I’d bring the bundles into the house, open up each sheet on a big protective tarp in the basement, and spread the wool out, keeping it on the sheet that identified its origin. With the gas fireplace going, the wool would dry out in just a day or two. The problem now is that we will have 51 fleeces. The forecast for this region shows rain every single day from now through next Thursday, when the forecast is for overcast conditions through our shearing date — not particularly helpful for drying out fleeces! I need to think about what I’ll do if all of the fleeces are either wet or damp.

When spread out for skirting, each adult fleece covers my dining room table, about 15 square feet. If I need to dry 51 fleeces, I would need almost 800 square feet of open space — almost half of the square footage of my house, with furniture removed.

Condensation running down the whiteboard this morning.

I’m trying to figure out how to dry the wool in the barn before it’s sheared, but this seems a lost cause as well. I currently have only half of the sheep in the Sheep Barn, where we will shear; the rest are up in the lean-to at the Storage Barn. With only half the flock in the Sheep Barn and with all of the windows and the main door open, there is still enough condensation to rain from the ceiling. Drips are running down the whiteboards and the walls. Their fleeces are anything but dry.

I’m still watching the weather forecast and still searching for a dry-wool solution as I go about my preparations for shearing. We don’t have long now, and so far there’s no solution in sight.

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