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Dealing With Wool
On A Small Farm

By Judy Taylor

Edeldal Farm, Auburn, WA

Unconventional Shearing

At Edeldal Farm we shear our Jacobs in the spring, and our Angora goats are shorn in the fall and the spring. We shear our own animals, using a stanchion, sharp scissors and electric horse-clippers. The process takes practice, but the benefits to our farm are that we shear each animal at the perfect time, we get the highest quality fleeces, and we save money.

If you do not have a stanchion, place a halter on the animal and tie her to a post. The shearing area should be as clean as possible, so that if the wool should touch the ground, it will not be contaminated with vegetation. If you are shearing outside, you could put a clean tarp or plywood under the shearing area.

Judy Taylor demonstrates spinning with her own rich colored Jacob wool. The beautiful sweater she's wearing is handspun from her sheep.
Judy Taylor demonstrates spinning with her own rich colored Jacob wool. The beautiful sweater she’s wearing is handspun from her sheep.

I start at the backbone, and shear one side at a time. It is important to try to keep the fleece together, so that the pieces can be reunited and rolled up together. So as I shear, I support the shorn fleece with my other arm or knee, and try to keep the side of the fleece in one piece.

I shear with sharp scissors, as opposed to hand-held sheep shears, which I’ve found are too big for my hand. When shearing the goats I have found that electric horse-clippers are a time-saver for getting the fleece off the sides of the body.

I shear close to the animal’s body, avoiding “second cuts” (cutting the lock in the middle, leaving small amounts of unspinnable fiber in the fleece). If I do get second cuts, I remove them from the fleece while I shear, so that only the perfect fiber goes in the bag.

For the highest quality fleeces, I try to separate the best handspinning fiber from the lesser-quality leg wool, or areas that have vegetation or matting. This way my customers get only the best, most consistent handspinning fleece. Often other areas of the fleece are still spinnable but should be washed and carded before selling, so that vegetation can be removed. If the fleece has excessive vegetation, it won’t come out even after carding, and should really be discarded. Better to start fresh and avoid contaminating the next year’s fleece.

It takes me around 45 minutes to shear a sheep, and up to an hour and a half to shear an Angora goat. My goats take longer because they have much more fleece, but any animal with a fleece weighing eight pounds or less is a good candidate for hand-shearing. It certainly is not a speedy process, but if done well, it can be a very enjoyable, stress-free experience for the shearer and the animal.

One of the best ways to learn what it means to shear a sheep or goat well is to learn to spin. Handspinners will pay a premium for clean, healthy fleece, and learning to spin yourself will help you to understand what you need to do to harvest the wool in a condition your customers are looking for. If all else fails, you must locate a professional shearer. Washington State flockmasters may call the Washington Wool Growers, (509) 765-3581; growers located elsewhere may call your closest sheep organizations.

Marketing Fleece

Selling top quality wool is the key to keeping happy customers. One of the best ways to market your fleece is to enter it in a wool competition. In our area there are a few such competitions where spinners flock to choose the best handspinning wool. A good fiber judge will give comments while judging, and buyers often take notes and choose fleece based on the recommendation of the judge.

Hand crafters buy special flock products - (clockwise from upper right) roving, handspun yarn and knitted sample. These are all natural colored Jacob wool.
Hand crafters buy special flock products—(clockwise from upper right) roving, handspun yarn and knitted sample. These are all natural colored Jacob wool.

The shepherd can learn a lot about shearing and caring for sheep from a good fiber judge. Fleeces are usually judged on the basis of cleanliness, healthiness, strength, uniformity and breed character. Spinners are looking for different kinds of fleece for different projects. A fiber judge can help you to understand what kind of project your fleece is good for, which can help in marketing your fleece to your customers.

Another way to market your wool is to join a spinning guild. These groups usually meet monthly and are a great way to learn to spin, felt, dye, knit, weave—you name it! You can also advertise in “Loose Threads,” the monthly newsletter of the Northwest Regional Spinner’s Association. There are several annual events in our area in which shepherds sell wool and wool products, which are very well attended by hand spinners and fiber artists. Nowadays shepherds are even making use of the internet to sell wool.

Many sheep farms try to offer more than just raw wool. Many specialize in crafts to make use of their wool, and to suggest uses for their fiber to their customers. Some offer carding services, or sell spinning and weaving equipment. At Edeldal Farm, we specialize in Nantucket Rug Hooking, offering classes, kits, instructional videos and books and custom rug-hooking. Finding a niche can help your sales, and broaden your base of customers.

Doll Hair & Santa Beards

Special note on marketing longwool and mohair: These are great handspinning fibers which are strong, lustrous and have that characteristic “fuzziness.” However, good, clean longwool and mohair are also in demand for other crafts, such as Santa beards and doll hair. This lucrative market demands long, curly, immaculately clean locks, but will also pay much more than the hand spinners. I find it helpful to coat my Angora goats to get the cleanest fiber. I wash the fleece as I would normally do, but when the fleece is dry I pull out the perfect locks, arrange them so they don’t get squished, and package them in one ounce bags.

Washing Fleece

I wash my fleeces in the kitchen sink, using the hottest tap water and large stock pots. I fill the first pot with hot water, and when it is full, add dishwashing liquid (wait to add the soap so you don’t get too many suds). The temperature of the water is more important than the amount or brand of soap that you choose. It should be as hot as you can stand (rubber gloves are handy).

For best results I wash about two pounds at a time. I put the greasy wool into the pot with the soap in it, and let it soak for about five minutes. Then I fill another pot with hot water (same temperature as the first pot), add soap, and transfer the wool by handfuls from the first pot to the second. Don’t agitate the wool while it is wet, or shock it from hot to cold, as this will cause the wool to felt.

When the fleece is transferred to the second pot of soapy water, I empty the first pot, and fill it with clean hot water. I then transfer the fleece by handfuls into the rinse water. I usually do two rinses, then squeeze the wool to remove most of the water, and lay the fleece on a rack, screen or towel to dry. On a sunny day, the fleece will dry outdoors in a couple of hours, and indoors it may take a day or more. If you turn the wool over during the drying process it can speed up the drying.

Another method to speed up the drying process is to “wuz the wool.” Put a handful of wet wool into a net bag (the kind you wash nylons in) and swing it around several times. Most of the water comes out in this process, and it doesn’t hurt the wool at all (it is also a pretty good workout for you as well!).

If you have a washing machine that allows you to do only one cycle at a time, you can put your wet wool into net bags and put the machine on spin cycle only, and most of the water will be removed that way.


A proper head hold. (Judy does hold adults' horns, but not the horns of young animals, because they can break.)
A proper head hold. (Judy does hold adults’ horns, but not the horns of young animals, because they can break.)

Showing your animals in fairs can be fun and educational, but it can also be stressful on the animals. It is extremely important to bring only the healthiest animals to the fair. At Edeldal Farm we show at only one fair each year (Western Washington Fair). This way, our animals are in top condition and show their best.

It is helpful to separate your show animals from the rest of the flock for a few weeks prior to the show, and put them on alfalfa (or whatever feed they will be getting at the fair). This way you avoid shocking their system with new feed at the fair, which can cause diarrhea. I try to worm the show animals two weeks prior to the fair, and again on the day they are hauled to the fair. It is a good idea to take their temperature before they are moved, just in case they are fighting an infection that you otherwise might not notice.

Fiber animals are shown in their natural state, with at least six months growth of the wool. However, you should clean up any wool tags, burrs, or excessive vegetation so they look their best. Our Angora does naturally stain their fleece on their back legs when they urinate, so we trim all the stained fiber away before they go to the fair.

Many fairs have a “Lad’s and Ladies’ Lead” event, where the contestant, wearing a wool outfit, leads a fiber animal around the ring. Each animal is trained to walk on a halter, and the pair is judged on the wool outfit, fitting and showing of the animal and the overall impression of the pair. The event promotes the qualities of wool, and shows the trainability of the animal. Start halter-training your animals about one month prior to the fair, by offering grain treats while the animals are haltered. Gradually increase the distance of walking on the halter before giving the grain, starting with a treat every few steps, to getting the whole treat at the end of the session. Halter-training your animals can be very handy throughout their lives, so starting them on the halter young is a good idea.

Judy Taylor raises Jacob sheep and Angora goats, spinning the fiber to turn it into high-value Nantucket yarn-hooked rugs. Her book and DVD on how to do this are both available from sheep! Bookstore, page 36.

The foregoing is the third installment of a short handbook she wrote to help customers who buy her purebred sheep and goats. [The first two installments appeared in the Jan/Feb 2008 and Mar/Apr 2008 issues of sheep!] It’s not intended to cover every aspect, but serves as a basic description of sheep care and tells new flockmasters how to profit from their new flocks.

Every sheep operation that sells special breeds yielding high-value products ought to consider providing their buyers with this kind of bonus, as a courtesy to insure success (and therefore repeat sales).?

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