Emily Chamelin AKA ‘The Shearer’ on Harvesting Wool
We are delighted to be able to share with you this ‘Harvesting Wool’ piece with Emily Chamelin, focused around one particular wool harvest: the harvest for “The Shepherd & The Shearer”. Many of you will remember Emily’s shearing piece from WOVEMBER last year, and the posts from Juniper Moon Farm by Susan Gibbs; you might also recall the excitement which attended the launch of “The Shepherd & The Shearer“. To update those of you who don’t know the back-story, Emily Chamelin shears at Juniper Moon Farm, and one evening, her and Susan ended up talking about how traditional, hard-wearing yarn (the sort that can be worn for 20 years without losing its structure) has gone out of fashion with contemporary knitters. They decided – Shepherd & Shearer – to do something about that. They invited world class designers Kate Davies and Kirsten Kapur to design sweaters respectively for a Shepherd and a Shearer, and then went about organising the yarn, the patterns, and a booklet that bring the whole thing together.
In this Q&A, Emily tells us about harvesting the wool for this special project. All images and words © Emily Chamelin and used with her kind permission.
Dear Emily, WOVEMBER readers who were with us last year will remember the momentous occasion when “The Shepherd & The Shearer” project was launched! It has been very exciting to see this project develop, celebrating good strong wool as an everyday textile; providing traceability for the sheep to shoulders route of hand-knitted garments; engaging knitters with the provenance of wool; and foregrounding the labour of shepherds and shearers. A year on, we wondered if you could answer some of our questions about how it’s all gone? I wondered if you could start by telling us a bit about approaching the other shepherds whose wool went into this venture? Where they excited to be involved, and were you able to offer them a better price for their wool because of its planned use in this amazing project?
Emily: The wool for this project was almost 100 percent sourced by me from farms that I work for. All of this wool was slated to be discarded either as trash or burned. Several factors have contributed to this excess of waste wool in recent years. Commercial wool prices had dropped about 5 years ago, because of this and because so many farms in my region own only a few sheep (as pets) or larger farms focus more on lambs then wool, this has created a market where wool is treated as a byproduct rather then a commodity. Producers with only a few sheep would pay more to drive their wool to a sale barn then they would receive for the sale of the wool. If you were not willing to invest time and energy into direct marketing your wool clip then you would never be able to receive the proper value for the wool. I have always offered to take the wool if only to prevent it from going into the trash. In previous years I have just taken the wool to a sale pool and considered that money my bonus check at the end of the year. When Suzie approached me about this project I was more then happy to direct this wool into something which highlighted the beauty of our region’s wool and to see the end result of my labor.
WOVEMBER: You are a world class sheep shearer who WOVEMBER readers will remember from the Q&A you provided last year! There was a staggering quantity of different sheep breeds involved in “The Shepherd & The Shearer”. Looking in the Shepherd & Shearer booklet, I see there were Wensleydales, Merinos, Leicester Longwoolsetc. and I wondered if you could say a few words about shearing different breeds; do different breeds require different handling, comb-types, etc. and are some breeds harder to shear than others?
Emily: I always like to brag about where I live in the world as having the most diverse genetic population of sheep. It seems like everyone wants to have their own breed which is exciting for me being able to see and feel so many different types of wool and different sheep personalities but it also means that wool carries very little value if you do not put effort into marketing your product. The tricky part about shearing so many types of breeds is that it took me a long time to figure out the patterns for certain breeds and really start to connect the dots about when the best time to shear certain breeds is and also why certain breeds were so hard to shear! Some breeds, like any from the Lustre category (i.e. Leicester Longwools, Border Leicesters, Wenslydales etc…) shear well pretty much year round. With these breeds the tricky part is managing length of the fiber. Some of these breeds grow an inch every two months. Many of my clients have ran into trouble processing the longer staple lengths so they go to shearing twice a year only to find that the wool doesn’t quite meet the ideal 3 inch length most hand spinners desire. It is a constant battle trying to find the Ideal shearing schedule for each of my clients to give them the product that best suits their needs. Other breeds like Shetlands and fine wools need to be shorn at specific times of the year to correspond with how the grease in the wool is behaving. If you attempt to shear either of these breeds before May it is usually met with frustration and a lower quality clip as the necessary pushing that is involved with getting through the thick grease can result in more second cuts. Waiting until warmer weather to loosen the grease makes a world of difference but then you run into troubles getting owners to understand this phenomenon and to clearly see why this would be best for everyone involved. Most people want to shear prior to lambing and with lambing starting in March in my neck of the woods, waiting until May can be a tough transition.
In regard to your question of how different breeds shear, I have always been amazed at how each breed has its own unique personality. Cheviots are the ideal example for this. Most people know them to be wild and flighty, a lovely trait if you’re lambing on pasture and want hardy, maintenance-free sheep. It’s not the best trait if you want to hold them close and do a neat shear job. They make you earn every cent. Other breeds like like Border Leicesters and Romneys sit very well on the board but can get extremely fat on our east coast grass so you always go in expecting to drag around a little extra weight. Rambollets tend to be thinner and will curl up in a fetal position when you sit them down. Trying to shear their bellies can be tricky because of this tendency. Breeds like Wendsleydales have only been in the United States for a few years but already they have a reputation for being fighters during shearing. I have found this rumor to be true. You really have to be strong to hold onto this breed! Smaller breeds like Shetlands and Babydoll Southdowns which carry the idea of being easier to shear are usually tricky as they sit below your knees (which do most of the holding while shearing) and they have such tiny parts you really have to be careful. Each breed is unique and has such interesting characteristics, which is part of the fun of this job.
But lastly, you ask if I use different gear depending on the breed I’m shearing. The answer to that is yes and no. On the front of the comb is a bit of metal that doesn’t do the cutting but just leads the comb into the wool. This bit of metal, called a bevel, comes in varying lengths. Longer bevels are better for thicker/greasier wool types like fine wools. Shorter bevels are good for open wools like long wools. The short bevel travels through the wool faster if it is open and good combing. I tend to rely on a middle of the road medium bevel. It cuts medium grade wool like Suffolk, Dorset and Cheviot, with ease. Plus it still does a dandy job on long wools and can work with fine wools as long as your shearing them at the right time. You may still have to push a bit more. Keeping your gear sharp and your equipment running soundly is extremely important if you’re going to be shearing a lot of sheep. As you get a feel for the sheep in your area buying specific combs for the breeds you see is a natural next step in being able to do a top quality job.
WOVEMBER: Could you tell us a little bit about the catchment area for the different fleeces that went into the Shepherd & the Shearer project, and roughly how many farms were involved?
Emily: I solicited wool from farms all over Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. All of the wool that went into this project was going to be thrown out. In this way I was able to gather together a huge truckload of wool that would otherwise have been discarded. All this wool was stored at my home in Maryland until we took it to the mill. Keep in mind this was only ONE year’s worth of wool and it wasn’t even the entire amount of wool I had collected! Wool that was shorter then 2 inches did not go into this project. I am always floored by how much wool would otherwise be wasted if not for projects like this one. I shear for several hundred individuals over the course of the spring and while I did not keep exact records of who contributed wool I would guess that The Shepherd and the Shearer has wool sourced from at least 150 farms.
WOVEMBER: A proportion of the proceeds from the sales of the Shepherd & Shearer project were always destined for a school to help young women to enter the shearing profession. I wondered if you could say a few words about this school, and about why it’s so important to you to support the work that it does?
I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that being a female in what is traditionally an all male profession has had it share of discouragement. Some people didn’t want to hire me because they didn’t feel I was strong enough or just on principle that I was female. But as farming in the United States shifts more and more into women’s hands it is nice to be able to bridge that gap between the way shearing used to be conducted and the way the industry is shifting. We no longer see shearing as just a method of extracting wool off the animal but as a harvest of a beautiful product, which when done correctly results in a high quality product and causes minimal stress to animals and owners. While this work is inherently dangerous it is an art form that is appreciated by many sheep owners. If we take care in our work the we can raise the public opinion of our profession and continue to show people what a beautiful thing shearing is. This is why we want to encourage women to shear, not only to encourage women in agriculture but to continue the transition of public perception from shearing as this rough thing into something more sensitive and artistic. Women have always been able to do that a bit better then men 🙂 By funneling money into a scholarship for women shearers we are able to eliminate one of the hurdles that may otherwise prevent qualified individuals from giving it a try. As I travel all over I am constantly encouraging young women to “give it a go” and through these funds I hope that not only do we keep quality shearers available to all sheep producers but also to open up opportunities to women that might not even have been a possibility before this.
WOVEMBER: The booklet that you have produced for this project is a truly lovely thing, celebrating the story of the project from start to finish, and giving knitters more background on the yarn than we ever normally have about the provenance of our hand-knitting wool. I wondered if you could say a few words about why you made this decision, and why it is important for knitters to understand a little of where our favourite yarns come from?
Emily: When Suzie and I began brainstorming about this project, we decided we needed a book right off the bat. I have the luxury of being able to visit all these wonderful places and meet all the folks who invest their time and lives in raising sheep. I know the personality (both good and bad!) of every creature that contributed to this. When I saw the yarn I got goosebumps to see so much of the work I had done, the physical manifestation of an entire spring. While anyone who purchases this kit can enjoy the beauty of the yarn and the feel of it as you work with it, we wanted to give them a taste of my experience to give their experience that much more depth.
WOVEMBER: The designs that Kate Davies and Kirsten Kapur have produced are absolutely beautiful, practical garments which utilise the lovely crisp qualities of good, strong wool to create a wonderfully warm and structured fabric. I wondered if you could talk about a similar garment which you have found invaluable in your work as a shearer?
Emily: As a person who works in the sheep industry, I have made it my goal to fully support my industry in as many ways as I can. I eat lamb often and I am proudly a wool snob. I sleep with wool blankets, I have a wool pillow, my home is carpeted with wool rugs and most importantly I wear wool. Lots of wool. I own everything from wool underwear to wool coats. I am never without some kind of wool garment on me. I believe in my product.
When I’m shearing I usually wear anywhere from 1-3 wool garments (plus my wool socks!) to regulate my temperature and wick away moisture. With fall in the air and winter right around the corner I have begun wearing a thrift store find, grey Old Navey 100 percent wool sweater, while shearing. It keeps me warm even when it’s wet (you know the industry line? It’s true!) and it stands up to the work I do in barns and out in sheds all day, I have never found an equal to wool in its long lasting durability and warmth. I love this sweater. I usually have a different thrift store wool sweater every year. As I rip holes in them I don’t mind taking the time to fix them up. There is nothing better then the familiar warmth of a well worn sweater, and as the season progresses this sweater will almost form fit to me. The only reason I replace my beloved sweater at the end of the season is so that people understand that I don’t just keep wearing the same outfit day after day(gotta mix it up somehow;) The sweater designed as “The Shearer” is another perfect example of the beauty of wool. Such a simple thing like a cable draws your eye to the beauty of the wool fiber present and almost makes you forget how utilitarian the garment is in it basic function.
Thank you so much, Emily!