17a, a pregnant Romney, ambles into the chute and stops. Her fleece corkscrews out from her body sending out shoots of thick wool in all directions. Grace, my ten-year old daughter, buries her hands deep into the wooly fleece and smiles. She runs off to find Annabel Lombard, the ewe’s owner, to have her to hold 17’s fleece once it’s sheared. Grace has never chosen a fleece before. She goes with her intuition; with the way her hands feel buried into the ewe’s wool, with the way the ewe stops, tilts her head back, and looks up at this girl leaning over the railing, as though asking to be chosen.We arrived that morning at Annabel’s ranch through a series of fortunate encounters I find increasingly common in Eastern Montana. It goes something like this. A few weeks ago, Grace became interested in a neighbor’s ability to spin wool and knit. The neighbor invited Grace to a gathering of local spinners. While watching them spin and discuss wool dying, she hit on an idea for her upcoming science fair project: to test various salts and their effects on color saturation in the wool dying process. She asked one of the spinners where she might buy some raw wool. Within a day, she was forwarded an already thrice-forwarded invitation to join “fellow fiber fanatics” for a day of shearing, skirting, and stomping at a ranch out near Fromberg, about thirty miles away.
And so we set forth this brisk February morning with an email in hand from a woman we’d never met, to join a group of people we didn’t know, in a place we’d never been, to help do something we had no idea how to do.
I am someone uncomfortable in the presence of strangers, especially a large group of strangers blessed, I assume, with the secret knowledge of how to coax a swarming mass of bleating animals through the shearing process. My mind races through a series of anxiety-provoking scenarios.
Just off the dirt road leading out of Fromberg, I spot a Sheep Shearing Party welcome sign tacked to a fence post. My breathing relaxes. When we enter the barn, heads do turn, but everyone smiles broadly, our hands are relieved of our dessert contribution and shaken heartily in welcome.
We quickly join about thirty others who are busy moving the eighty or so Targhee, Romney, and Hampshire sheep around the barn and through the chutes into the two shearing stations. Grace quickly surveys the pens and chutes and finds 17a slowly drifting towards the front of the shearing line.
Shorn is Beautiful
When 17a finally makes it to the front of the line, one of the two shearers pushes the chute gate down and moves the ewe under the shearing clippers, which dangle down from the barn rafters, looking remarkably similar to the shears you’d see in a men’s barbershop.
While trimming 17a, the shearer fills me in on a few basics. He starts with the ewe’s stomach, holding the animal between his knees. He’s careful to take the fleece off the ewe in one piece, which makes it easier to handle, clean and process. They shear sheep in February before the ewes start lambing as with less wool newborn lambs find the teets and nurse more easily. And, with less wool, the ranchers find it easier to keep the ewe cleaner during the birthing process which helps if anything goes wrong. Shorn sheep are more likely to come into the barn to lamb during the cold which increases survival rates in lambs. Once inside, shorn ewes take up less space around the feeders.
The shearing takes only a few minutes and the ewe seems resigned to the process, neither fighting too hard nor particularly passive. Once the shearer finishes with 17a, Annabel scoops up the fleece and throws it onto the skirting table, flesh side down. A group of volunteers converge on the fleece, picking it over. They remove off-color wool, contaminated areas, and any very short or heavily matted wool. The skirters then roll the outside edges of the fleece towards the middle, and then roll it up from the ends with the flesh side out.
From the skirting table, the fleece goes into a plastic bag, is weighed, and either bought and paid for by one of the spinners present or sent out to a wool mill. 17a’s fleece came in at a little more than eight pounds or roughly sixteen dollars.
We stash 17a’s fleece in our car and head into heated shop attached to the barn for steaming bowls of lamb stew and luscious desserts (there is a non-lamb stew available for those who prefer not to eat within the nearby gaze of the meal’s grazing brethren). In the shed, spinners set up a wheel and are spinning, comparing notes and stories with other spinners, working out various projects, or just enjoying each other’s company. Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company, from Belgrade (lambandwool.com) has set up some of their products on a work bench and are taking custom orders on freshly shorn fleeces.
Driving home that afternoon, following the winding path of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone back down towards Billings, we look back on the day. We set forth feeling rather anxious about crashing a party to which we weren’t exactly sure we had been invited. We’re not wool producers, fellow ranchers, spinners, knitters, or any form of “fiber fanatic.” We received Annabel’s invitation third-hand (at a minimum), and we’d never actually met the person who forwarded the email to us. At each step along the way to Annabel’s ranch, someone had reached out in response to a young girl’s curiosity and interest with more than a reciprocal nod or obligatory answer, but with their time and their knowledge, engaging her and guiding her deeper into the mysteries of wool production.
Grace will complete her experiment and she will arrive at a determination about salts and dyeing. She will brush up against the scientific method of inquiry. But she’ll take with her a great deal more. Her eyes will forever be able to conjure the image of a ewe stopping to look up and meet her gaze. Her fingers will remember the rough feel of wool moving underneath them. Her ears will recall the buzz of the shears and the bleating of sheep moving through this ancient cycle. And perhaps most of all, she will remember the generosity of neighbors, and of a community who met her interest and welcomed her, shepherding her deeper into wonder and into the mysteries of our world.
ewe 17a going in for a shearing
The shearer starts with the stomach
Mid-shear, ewe 17a tilts towards resignation
Shearing the back
Shearing the hindquarters
Shearing the neck
ewe 17a gets up to leave the shearing barn, very pregnant
17a’s fleece going onto the skirting table
Volunteers clean the fleece on the skirting table, removing the less desirable fibers
More fleece skirting
Rolling the fleece on the skirting table
Bagging the fleece
Bagging the fleece
Freshly shorn ewes gathering at a feeder
Grace with 17a’s fleece while Ruth looks on (and tries not to look at the camera)
For commercials spinners, the fleeces are piled into 100-plus pound bags