In late spring sheep need shearing. Sheep grow wool continuously and if their fleece is not removed before the warmer weather of summer, they can become very uncomfortable and stressed.
Depending on the breed of sheep, a fleece will weigh 3-5kgs; that’s enough wool to make a man’s suit or 100 miles of fine yarn.
How’s it done?
The shearer turns the sheep on its back to keep it still and skillfully removes the fleece in one piece with electric shears. It’s like having a haircut and doesn’t hurt the sheep.
The fleeces are carefully folded and packed into large sacks. The wool has to be graded according to quality and colour before it is sold. Much of the wool produced in Cornwall is used to make carpets.
Before it can be used, the wool must be washed to remove the natural grease; this is lanolin which is used in soap and face cream. Then the wool must be combed and spun into yarn.
A woolly past
Wool was an important product in England in the Middle Ages and a valuable export. Woollen cloth was produced in the home using hand-powered machinery like the spinning wheel.
By the middle of the 18th century production had moved to factories which housed the new steam-powered spinning and weaving machines. This made production quicker and cheaper.
Imports of cotton from the American colonies and later India gradually displaced home-grown wool; cotton was easier to use in the factory machines and woollen cloth production declined.
Nowadays the value of the raw wool is low and barely covers the cost of hiring the shearers.