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How to waltz with a sheep

At top, the first part of shearing a sheep is to catch it. Carol Wiseman chases the sheep she will eventually shear. Above, spectators watch with interest as Wiseman nears the finish of her demonstration. The three girls standing at the fence are, from the left, Ava Wesner, Erica MacLaran and Scarlett Hansen. - Jim Larsen / The Record
At top, the first part of shearing a sheep is to catch it. Carol Wiseman chases the sheep she will eventually shear. Above, spectators watch with interest as Wiseman nears the finish of her demonstration. The three girls standing at the fence are, from the left, Ava Wesner, Erica MacLaran and Scarlett Hansen.
— image credit: Jim Larsen / The Record

The name of the sheep wasn’t announced, but if it was Matilda, someone was waltzing with it.

This particular sheep was shorn Sunday morning at the Tilth Farmers Market by shearer extraordinaire Constance Wiseman.

Wiseman, a Freeland resident, gripped the reluctant sheep between her legs, electric shears in hand, and started removing its woolly coat, which was no easy task. After a haircut there are thousands of bits of hair on the floor waiting to be swept up. After a shearing by Wiseman, there is one sheep-shaped pelt that, if equipped with a zipper, could be put right back on the sheep.

The secret, Wiseman told the small crowd gathered outside the pen, is “the sequence,” or the learned art of sheep shearing. There are no better ways or shortcuts that will work.

“Even if you think you’ve got a better way, you don’t,” she said, soliciting a chuckle from the onlookers.

She described the technique of quickly shearing all sides and top and bottom of the sheep as “the dance — it’s like a waltz. You move your leg here and here, the arm that way, you have to master the sequence.”

A handful of spectators at the demonstration watched with a mixture of awe and disgust, at least judging by the expression on the faces of  three young girls, Ava Wesner, Erica MacLaran and Scarlett Hansen. Sometimes they looked away when a slight shaving nick produced a bit of blood, other times they appeared to feel badly for the sheep, squeezed between Wiseman’s legs. They wrinkled up their noses in unison when Wiseman pointed out the less delicate aspects of sheep shearing: “Don’t let the grease, poop and dirt bother you,” she said.

Within minutes there was a fine pelt lying on the ground and Wiseman picked up the struggling sheep and lugged it back to a waiting truck. Later in the day she presented a second demonstration, ending phase one of a summer-long “Sheep to Shawl” project sponsored by Tilth.

Project manager Molly Petersons, a 24-year veteran of the farmers market, said the two shearing events went well, and she was particularly pleased that “half the spectators were kids … Constance did a real nice job of explaining it.” Raising and shearing sheep and other animals for fiber was more common on the island a quarter century ago, she said. She’s glad to see it coming back as more people raise sheep, alpacas and llamas.

Later in the day volunteers went through the two fleeces, picking out dirt,  straw, weeds, seeds and what Wiseman described as sheep “dreadlocks.” The cleaned pelts are now ready for the rest of the project, which takes place the second Sunday over the next five months.

On June 10, participants will demonstrate washing and dyeing the fleeces, after which the fleeces will be spread out in the sun to dry.

On July 9, the wool will go through the carding process to prepare the fiber for spinning.

On Aug. 12, there will be spinning, which turns the wool into yarn.

On Sept. 9, there will be weaving, knitting and crocheting, producing beautiful shawls from hand-spun yarns.

Finally, on Oct. 14, handwoven shawls will go through the detail work of the finishing process.

To Petersons, Sunday’s shearing experience was an excellent start to the project. “People are becoming more interested in agriculture,” she said.

And that’s the whole point of the project.

Contact her with questions at flyingfennel@gmail.com.

The Tilth Farmers Market is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday on the corner of Highway 525 and Thompson Road, between Bayview and Freeland.

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