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Winter Woolies
Windward Notes By Walt Wadas

…Joyce is busily working on her next writing project while waiting for her fifth book to come out for the Mother's Day market next spring. When she's not writing, she's focusing on tapestry weaving and marketing our wool crop over the Internet. Instead of the assembly line shearing that most sheep are put through, ours get individual attention. The naturally colored wool produced by our Karakuls is a novelty for most folks who spin, and people are always interested in trying something new. By dealing directly with the spinners over the Internet, Joyce has been getting excellent prices for our wool crop.

When shearing, Joyce and I do one ewe an evening, and take about three times as long as a "real" shearer would. That's partially because of a lack of skill and stamina on my part; commercial shearing is demanding work, and those guys earn every dollar. How they can bend over a ewe for hours and then ever walk straight again is beyond my understanding.

High-speed shearing can also be quite hazardous to the sheep, if the shearer isn't good at what he does. There are "delicate bits" that can be damaged by power cutters, and in places the skin is thin and easily cut. There's a needle and dental floss in my shearing kit for a reason.

We just lay the ewe down on a couple of sheets of plywood, calm her down, and start shearing at a slow and steady pace. It takes longer, but it's not uncomfortable for either her or me, and the task passes quickly enough. We feed in the morning, and shear in the evening; for a ewe to have to lay on her side with a fully belly would be most uncomfortable.

As I cut away the fleece, Joyce gathers it up and separates out the prime wool cut from the sides, back and shoulders, from the waste wool cut away from the legs, neck and stomach. A professional shearer is focused on getting the wool off of the ewe, whereas we're focused on maximizing the utility of the resultant fleece.

One of the big "bugaboos" in shearing is called "second cuts." That's where the shear passes over a spot for a second time and cuts off short lengths of wool around a 1/4 inch in length. If incorporated into the yarn when it's spun, these second cuts will create unwanted "neps," so it's important to have as few as possible. While it's nice to end up with a smoothly shorn ewe, it's more important to strive to see that each hair is only cut once. Better to end up with a roughly cut ewe than a problematic fleece. Besides, from their perspective, it's a "bad hair day" no matter what.

This is the first year I've worked primarily with an electric, hand-held shear machine (looks like the big brother of the clippers you see in a men's barber shop). It's faster than hand shears, but slower than the shaft-driven shears the pros use. Since I still have a lot to learn, and since I only do it now and then, I expect that I'll stay at this level of shearing and not try to master the power shears.

When folks ask what dues at Windward cover, I've added "free haircuts" to the traditional list of benefits, but no one's taken me up on my jest so far.

Windward is cooperative association of individuals dedicated to developing, communicating and implementing the principles of self–reliance and providing assistance to people in transition. Visit their website:, or email: