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Shearing Notes

By Kevin Ford

Kevin Ford is America’s foremost “blade” (hand) sheepshearer. He has made his living at it for over 20 years, conducts many workshops and public demonstrations, and wrote the finest book on blade shearing available today: Shearing Day: Sheep Handling, Wool Science, And Shearing With Blades. (Available in hardcover from sheep!Bookstore.) Send your questions about shearing to Shearing Notes, c/o Kevin Ford, 279 Warner Hill Rd., Charlemont, MA 01339 or via e-mail to sheepmagazine@citynet.net.

Any Advantage To Hand Shorn?

Do hand shorn fleeces have any advantage over machine shorn when it comes to selling to handspinners?

Shearer's nose is over the sheep's dock.
Shearer’s nose is over the sheep’s dock.

A high quality shearing will result in a fleece that is unbroken and easy to skirt, and free from second cuts, and these requirements can be met with either tool.

The result will depend on the skill and conscientiousness of the shearer.

There might be a slight advantage in that a hand spinner may like the fact that her/his fleece was also sheared by hand. On a farm where spinners are invited to come and select fleeces on shearing day, the demonstration of hand shearing is attractive to many.


A wool buyer told me he pays more for wool that has no burrs, plastic, or shives in it. I didn’t want to look ignorant so I didn’t ask what he meant by “shives.” Can you tell me what shives are, and how they get into the wool?

The term comes from down under (New Zealand and Australia) and refers to vegetable matter contamination, typically grass seed.

Rare Breeds

I’d like to add a rare breed to my farm, and there seem to be a lot of them that folks claim need protection. Are there any that are more valuable as a genetic resource?

Don't back up too much while shearing the last side; let the sheep fall and fold into place - shearer's knees are straight.
Don’t back up too much while shearing the last side; let the sheep fall and fold into place—shearer’s knees are straight.

Sheep breeding in this country is an untidy affair. We are not a major sheep breeding country. In the 19th Century the U.S. (and particularly the State of Vermont) made a major contribution to the development of the Merino sheep. And the Columbia breed is of U.S. origin. But most breeds in the U.S. are imports. The number of sheep in the U.S. is small, and the numbers in many breeds are quite small.

Even some principal breeds like the Southdown, Tunis and Suffolk have been “lost,” or nearly lost, in the U.S., if one values their original type (though a new breed, the “American Suffolk,” has been created) by the demands of the show ring, and the market, and the lack of appreciation of breed “type.”

Choose then a breed you have a true liking for, know the original characteristics that have defined it, know its strengths, and breed to maintain them. Accept the breed’s limitations; don’t breed for the “all-around best sheep.” (Let those who intentionally crossbreed for commercial production do that.) Select a breed with enough numbers for a reasonable genetic pool, and learn about linebreeding, an essential tool for pure breeding, especially with a limited national flock.

How To Reach The Last Blows

I have trouble finishing the last few blows on the sheep I shear. I’m not able to reach the wool, and if I move my feet around to reach, I lose the sheep. What am I not doing right?

When shearing the last few blows, the shearer’s nose should be over the sheep’s dock. The shearer’s feet then need to be well up and under the sheep—the left shin pinning the sheep at its right front shoulder, and the shearer’s right foot close to the left and under the sheep’s left side to help hold the sheep against the shearer’s left leg. And your knees are straight. (You have to be able to at least touch your toes.) To get into this position, don’t back up too much as you shear the last side, but let the sheep fall and fold. (see photos).

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