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A Story of Shearing

Sheep shearing

I'm getting ready to start the new school year and will be telling The Story of the History of Wool to my new children next week. The story mentions removing the wool from the sheep but does not go into much detail so this is an area the children can continue to explore.

Obviously the ideal is for children to visit a shearing shed or have someone bring a sheep to school and shear it for them to watch. We do this every now and again, but we live in New Zealand so there are plenty of woolly volunteers, not everyone has such an abundance of sheep in their vicinity. If you can't get to a sheep farm you can make do with some videos - there are plenty on YouTube - and you can buy whole fleeces online to continue the rest of the process yourselves.

Here is my Story of Shearing which I tell at the beginning of our investigations into shearing:

A Story of Shearing

Do you remember in the Story of the History of Wool, we learned about the first time people made the discovery that they could cut the fur from a sheep’s back, and use it to keep themselves warm? This was a very important discovery as it meant they could keep the sheep alive and collect wool from it again and again, instead of killing it and using its skin just once.

Taking the wool from a sheep is called shearing. It is usually done once each year in springtime, so that the sheep have less wool over the hot summer and have a chance to grow it again to keep them warm in winter.

We don’t know what those first shepherds used to trim the fur from their sheep, but we do know that the type of scissors that people use for taking the wool off sheep have been around for a very long time. These scissors are made from two blades which are joined together at the end so that when you squeeze the handle, they cross over and cut what ever is between them. We call these special scissors shears and that might give us a clue as to what they were first designed for.

These shears were such a good invention that people kept using the same design for thousands of years. In fact, some cultures still use hand shears to shear their sheep, just like the ones the Mesopotamians used.

In most large sheep farms, nowadays, sheep are shorn using electric shears in shearing sheds. The sheep wait their turn in pens and the shearers bring them out one at a time to have their haircut. The shears are very skilled and can shear a whole sheep in just a few minutes. They try to go as fast as they can as there are lots of sheep to be done. Shearers take a lot of pride in their work and hold competitions to see who is the fastest and the best. In New Zealand, the fastest shearer wins a trophy called the Golden Shears. This is a very prestigious prize.

On big farms there will be several shearers in the shearing shed and as they go so fast, they produce a lot of heavy fleece which needs to be cleared away to make room for the next one. This is the job of the roustabouts. They are the shed workers who whip the fleece away as soon as it is off the sheep and take it to the sorting table. They spread it out and separate out the different grades of wool. The long, soft locks off the back go in one bin to be used as high-grade wool for clothing and fabric and the lower grade wool, from the underside of the sheep is used for fillings and insulation.

Both the shearers and the roustabouts have to be very fit as the sheep and the fleeces are heavy, and the work is hard. Can you imagine what the shearing shed must smell like at the end of the day? It would have all sorts of strong smells - sweat and sheep poo and lanolin. I bet the workers look forward to a long shower when they get home. I am very grateful they do this hard work so that we can have beautiful wool to work with and wear.

I'd love to hear about your children's investigations into shearing and processing wool. Please share any pictures or insights in the comments section below, on the Montessori Handwork Facebook page or in the Montessori Handwork Threads Facebook group.

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