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Stories from the valley

In Celebration of Wool

Contributed by Dan Macon

Over the last 8 weeks, hundreds of thousands of California sheep have been shorn – as they are every year during the late winter and early spring. On Mother’s Day weekend, it will be our flock’s turn with the shearer – if the weather cooperates (by which I mean no rain on shearing day), all of our ewes will be relieved of a year’s worth of wool. As a shepherd, I always look forward to shearing day – the work is intense, but it’s always done in the presence of friends and family. And shearing allows us to move on to the next phase of our production year – weaning the lambs in late June will be our next big task.

Earlier this year, I found this great infographic from the Campaign for Wool (whose patron is Prince Charles of the UK) describing the benefits of wool. In an increasingly high-tech world, I find it amazing that my sheep can turn carbon (in the form of grass) into a fiber that is odor- and bacteria-resistant, fire resistant, incredibly insulating (even when wet), and biodegradable. I love thinking that the wool shirt I wear in the wintertime was once sunshine, grass, and raindrops. And I love knowing that when I finally wear out that wool shirt (which takes an incredibly long time – I have shirts that are older than I am), it won’t become bits of micro-plastic floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (or anywhere else, for that matter).

To some, I suppose, wool can seem like something our grandparents wore – heavy coats and scratchy sweaters come to mind. But thanks to innovative processing and design techniques, new wool clothing is an incredible value. I always love my Pendleton shirts and Filson vests and coats, but I’m increasingly impressed with American companies like Duckworth, Farm-to-Feet and Darn Tough Socks, who are turning out high-performance wool-based clothing.

Raw wool (that is wool right of the sheep that hasn’t been cleaned or carded) is marketed largely by its degree of fineness, or the diameter of the fiber. Clothing-quality wool is typically in the 17-21 micron range. Our wool, because of the breeds that we raise, is considerably coarser (our crossbred mules shear a 27-30 micron fleece, while our Shropshires yield a 24-28 micron wool clip). In the commodity market, this makes our wool worth less than the fine wools from Rambouillet or Merino sheep – our kind of wool is typically made into carpet. Even so, I have several stocking hats knit from our wool that I find to be incredibly warm and comfortable. If you ever have the chance, be sure to check out Valley Oak Wool Mill near Woodland (where we’ve had our wool spun into yarn).

I love the thought that every wool garment begins with somebody shearing a sheep by hand. A good shearer combines the stamina of a marathoner, the strength of a weightlifter, and the grace of a dancer. As I said, shearing day is intense – my work starts at sunrise, and we’ll finally put the flock back out on pasture around sunset. Even so, I enjoy the sense of tradition – and the sense of community – that comes with shearing sheep. I enjoy knowing that families and friends have gathered to shear sheep for millennia. I’m looking forward to celebrating our wool!