Have You Any Wool?
By Amy King
In the Spring/Summer issue of Twist, I introduced you to my rapidly growing herd of goats and the piles of poop they produce. This installment deals with a more genteel caprine product: their gorgeous mohair fleece. Angora goats provide quite a bit of that. As a spinner, that's exactly what I want. The trick is getting it off the animal and onto the spinning wheel.
Did you know there are sheep out there that naturally shed their wooly coats? Shearing these particular breeds takes little more than a simple technique called rooing, in which the fiber is simply pulled from the animal. There’s a natural break in the growth of the wool and eventually it begins to pull away from the sheep’s body. Give it a gentle tug and the fleece breaks free with no need to reach for the clippers.
A fiber-producing animal that doesn't need actual shearing seems like magic to me. One day you have a fluffy, fuzzy goat or sheep and the next day, your darling pet is sporting a new do while you stand there with arms full of gorgeous spinning material. Angora goats, however, don’t perform this fiber voodoo. They need to be sheared.
Many of those raising fiber animals hire a professional to handle the shears. And had I been planning to sell the fleece I was gathering or to take it to show and hope for a prize, I might have done the same. But the fleece from my herd was for my own use. So I chose to take a more hands-on approach and do it myself. My logic in this choice was pretty straightforward: I've used clippers on both my own head and those of friends for years so why couldn’t I shear my animals myself? I looked at it as an adventure—I’d learn to shear safely, and if all went well I’d have some extra fiber to spin. If I ruined it, there would simply be a little less mohair in my spinning stash. Really, I had nothing to lose. So I returned to Friend's Folly Farm, my go-to source for all questions goat related, and asked Pogo, the woman in charge, to teach me the magic of shearing. She agreed.
I should explain that the clippers one uses on sheep and goats are completely different than those used on humans. The feel is different, the weight is different, the blades are different, and they’re much larger and heavier. Really the only similarity is that they perform similar acts. One can shear with manual oversized, scissor-like tools designed for the task, but it seemed to me that would take a painfully long time and increase the risk of harming an animal or myself. I was not born with grace. Bring on the electric clippers!
On the day of our lesson, Pogo put her well-behaved, sweet-as-pie goat up on her clipping stand and positioned her for shearing. Explaining how all of this is done she deftly clipped the fleece off one side of the goat and then told me to do the other. She and the goat seemed to have more confidence in my ability to do this than I did. I was sure I could shear without harming the goat. I wasn’t so sure I could do a stellar job of making the fleece usable.
It actually wasn't all that bad. The goat just stood still and let me shear her. No problems. No muss, no fuss. I did have to go back for a few second cuts—that’s when you shear off the majority of fleece but have to come back around and shear a second time, taking off only tiny little amounts of fleece. Second cuts aren’t desirable, but even the pros have to make them from time to time. Still, I didn't cut the goat and that's what was really important to me at this stage.
I learned about shear maintenance and other little things and was sent home with a set of clippers to trim up my own beasties. I drove home feeling confident and sure that separating the fleece from my own animals would be no problem at all. Then, as I was walking through all the steps in my head, I realized that I didn’t have the handy-dandy shearing stand Pogo had used. No problem. My goats are good little kids.
I started with our wether (neutered male goat), Griffin, certain that the lack of a shearing stand wouldn’t be a problem. He’s my daughter’s goat, and surely he'd behave if she held him. Not quite. I hadn’t even pulled out the clippers before he decided that this experience was bad news and that he wanted no part of it. My daughter managed to get a good hold on him, which allowed me to do most of the blanket part of his fleece. The legs and underbelly proved more challenging. Concerned for his manhood, Griffin made it clear that the experience needed to end. To ensure it didn’t, I flipped him onto his back like a sheep and cradled his head and horns between my leg and arm.
By then we both knew that this was going to end with bruises—hopefully just for me. Thankfully Griffin stayed put, pressing his horns into my thigh as hard as he could while I hastily finished up his underbelly. The legs—well, lets just say he wasn't perfect , and I was going to have a little trimming to make him look pretty again. Truthfully he looked downright ridiculous, with long patches of hair dangling around his face and legs. I had no sympathy. For all the trouble he gave me, he deserved every laugh I threw in his direction. I let him go and he made a beeline to the barn. I was okay with this. It had been tough on both of us. Feeling a little sweaty and a little battered, I checked the time, certain hours had gone by. In reality it had been less than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, that meant I had time for the second goat.
With a heavy sigh I asked the teen to bring her out. I figured I might as well get it all over with in one day—that way my bruises could all heal at once. My daughter appeared with Gypsy and I steeled myself for another round. I turned the clippers on and waited for the first complaint. It never came. Gypsy’s tail was wagging. Did you know goats wag their tails? They do and Gypsy was doing it. She’s such a mellow girl; I should have known this would be different than my attempt with Griffin. No flipping. No wrangling. No running back to the barn. Within minutes she was sheared and clipped to perfection, content to hang around and see if we might have more treats for her. With that, my first shearing was over. I made a mental note to find a shearing stand for the next time around and sat myself down for a much needed rest.
The fleece is wonderful by the way. I'm getting better each time. Fewer second cuts and fewer bruises. I can only imagine I'll improve as I'm able to do more animals. I’m not ready to sell full fleeces yet and for the moment remain perfectly content to spin the fluff from my own beasts just for myself. And one of these days I’ll get around to buying that shearing stand.
Amy King is the dyer at Spunky Eclectic (www.spunkyeclectic.com) and chief goat herder of her family's little hobby farm. The goats, however, think they're in charge of themselves. There's never a dull moment.