(Shepherding for Superior Wool, by Cherie Langlois, continued, page 2 of 2)
Treat Wool Right at Shearing Time and Beyond
When shearing day arrives, make sure your animals’ wool is dry—keep them inside for the night, if necessary—and arrange a dry, clean and well-lit area in which to shear.
A sheet of plywood makes an easy-clean, non-skid surface for your shearer to work on. Have bags or boxes ready and keep a broom handy to sweep away dust, straw and bits of wool between each shearing.
Shearing is tough work and it takes plenty of practice to become proficient enough to produce saleable fleeces. Taylor, for one, finds the time and the effort worth it.
“I shear my animals myself, in a stanchion, with regular scissors,” she says. “I get a close-up view of the fibers, and can control which bag the wool goes into (the perfect body wool in one bag, the coarser leg wool or wool with vegetation in another bag). I think one of the best ways to become a good shearer is to learn to spin—it will help you know what the spinner is looking for.”
If you don’t want to tackle this job yourself, find an experienced shearer who knows how to avoid second cuts (hand spinners dislike these snippets of wool) and who will handle your sheep safely. Treat your flock’s wool well after shearing. Heinrich ties each fleece up in a bed sheet right after it comes off the sheep so the wool stays clean while sitting around the barn. She skirts each fleece by about half to remove poorer quality and soiled wool, which she saves for craft projects or mulch.
Avoid storing fleeces long-term, advises Taylor. When you must store them, scour (clean) the wool and dry it, then stash the fiber in breathable paper bags or cardboard boxes in a spot where it will stay clean and dry. If you notice or suspect moth problems, Taylor recommends putting the wool in plastic bags and freezing it overnight to kill eggs and larvae.
Breeding Stock Selection
Selecting healthy breeding stock and constructing a careful breeding program will also contribute to the quality of your flock’s fleeces. If you’re starting from scratch and you’ve already settled on a breed, Taylor suggests first learning about the breed’s standard and visiting as many flocks as possible—along with sheep and fleece shows—before choosing your own animals.
The health of your new stock is paramount, so it’s best to avoid purchasing “bargain” sheep from auctions. Instead, look for healthy individuals from a reputable, private producer who will be candid about her flock’s health history. Nistock suggests checking potential breeding stock for at least the following: two normal testicles or functional teats, sound feet, a normal bite and size appropriate to age. The animal should have no udder lumps, skin lesions or other signs of ill health such as diarrhea, runny eyes or nose, or pale gums. “The easiest way to get a disease is to buy it and bring it home,” Nistock stresses. “There are many blood tests available and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask that they be done on potential breeding stock.” Ask your veterinarian what tests he or she recommends for your area.
If you already keep sheep, think about where you want to go with your flock as far as conformation, fleece and other inherited characteristics. Choose new rams with care and acquire the best you can. Since a ram covers many ewes and passes his genetics on to all his offspring, he’ll impact your breeding program—positively or negatively—for a long time to come. “When I bought our new ram, I looked at my flock and decided what I wanted to improve,” says Heinrich. “My emphasis is on fleece and I wanted to go finer, so in my ram I looked for a pure Romney on the fine side. He’ll take my entire flock and move it to the finer end.”
Marketing That Fluff
So your efforts paid off and you have bags of lovely, clean wool just begging to be spun or felted or….something. What now? Unfortunately, hand spinners won’t come flocking to buy your wool on their own; as with any business, it requires good marketing to bring in customers. Some possible ways to market your fleeces include advertising at craft shops and shows, attending spinning guild meetings, exhibiting at craft or fiber shows, entering fleece competitions, selling 24/7 on your own Web site and offering wool through on-line auction sites.
Provide your customers with superior wool the first time around and chances are they’ll be back for more.
About the Author: Cherie Langlois is a Washington-based writer who keeps Jacob sheep. A Canadian mill transforms her flock’s spotted fleeces into beautiful blankets.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.