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CHECK EUGENE WYATT'S CALENDAR on any given year and you'll find a giant X on the first Monday in March. That's when a crew arrives to this sheep farm in New York State for the annual rite of shearing. Depending on the year, Eugene will have upward of five hundred sheep to be shorn. The whole process takes up to three days to complete. Eugene times everything else in his year around this date, and it's one that cannot be missed. Just a few weeks later, the ewes will begin delivering their lambs, and all coats must be off before that happens.
I'm here to touch raw Saxon Merino wool on the hoof and meet the sheep and people behind it. This is my Michael Pollan moment, but instead of partaking in, say, the slaughter of a pig, I'm visiting the farm where the wool in my bale came from, watching the sheep get shorn, and better getting to know Eugene, the remarkable shepherd of this equally remarkable flock.
Sheep didn't always need our help removing their coats. They used to shed each spring, leaving tufts of wool snagged on bushes and fence posts and in the grabby hands of the humans tending them (the latter being a process called "rooing"). For more than ten thousand years, sheep offered a one-stop haberdashery for all our needs. Lacking the distraction of cell phones or social media, we had plenty of time to separate out each kind of fiber by hand for its optimal application. Short tender fibers went in the next-to-skin pile while long pointy ones went in the durable goods basket, not to mention all the various shades of brown, tan, gray, and black that were further sorted for colorwork.
All that came to a halt at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which conveniently coincided with the advent of selective breeding. You'd think we would've caught on sooner, but it wasn't until the mid-1700s, boosted by a British agriculturalist named Robert Bakewell, that we realized we could change what was born by simply choosing which animals were allowed to breed. Random tendencies, if carefully bred from generation to generation, could eventually become the norm. We were rolling up our sleeves and playing Darwin (who was inspired by Bakewell), but it wasn't always the fittest that ended up surviving. Often, it was the most desirable.
By the late 1700s, we no longer valued different textures and colors as much. We wanted one thing: brilliant, fine, white wool. We also wanted to be in control of when the wool came off the sheep. For the most part we succeeded. Modern sheep breeds have coats that are bright, fine, and uniform, and they only come off when we say so. Which, in Eugene's case, is always that first Monday in March.
Eugene's farm is in Goshen, New York, a sleepy hamlet some sixty miles north of Manhattan. Settled in 1714, it now boasts one chain hotel, seven pizza restaurants, a diner, and a town square that's actually a triangle. Its architectural claim to fame is the Orange County Government Center, a crazy, boxy, iconically Brutalist jumble of glass and concrete that was somehow permitted to be built in 1967 and that the locals have been trying to demolish ever since. They finally succeeded. By the time you read this, the much-contested structure will have been relegated to the history books.
Eugene rents 140 acres with several outbuildings from a farmer south of town. He pays rent on part of the property, and the farmer grows hay on the rest — which Eugene then buys back for his flock in eight-hundred-pound bales, fourteen per week, at $38 apiece. It's a complicated form of extra rent he finds both convenient and ironic, since the hay fields are fertilized by his sheep.
I'd driven down the night before and was lingering over breakfast and a dull mug of coffee at the Goshen Diner when the insecurities began to hit. Visiting Eugene on his home turf had seemed like a great idea. But as I drove the quiet country roads out of town, my crisis of confidence deepened. I'd built up quite the illusions about him and his flock by now, and I felt so sure my image was right, I'd bet my reputation on it. What if I was wrong? What if I'd misread him completely and his place was a disaster, the animals were abused and living in filth, and he had naked-lady mudflaps on his truck? I could coach myself through that worry well enough. But what if my questions came off as naive and he regretted ever offering me his fibers? My god, what if he was the one who'd built up grand expectations about me that I couldn't possibly fulfill? My Michael Pollan moment was missing just one thing: the confidence and bravery of an actual Michael Pollan.
A winding, narrow road and deep ditches on either side brought my attention back to the present. The trees were still bare. Rolling farmland was dotted with rumpled old barns surrounded by emerald green grass and occasional exposed earth the color of brownie batter. Every few miles I saw fresh, boxy McMansions creeping over the horizon like redcoats on the advance. Eugene had told me he was still in Goshen only because a development referendum had stopped his landlord from subdividing, "for now."
Following Eugene's instructions, I pulled into a farm at the top of a hill and parked next to another car. There were no sheep in sight. Not until I was about ten yards from a low cinder-lock building with vines climbing through its cracked casement windows did I begin to hear signs of life. A person's voice, then the humming of electric shears, the quiet bleat of a sheep, a woman's voice singing. Dolly Parton.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, Eugene spotted me and came over.
"I'm ready for my close-up!" he said in an exaggerated southern falsetto.
He'd worn his best overalls just for my visit, he said. His hands were bare, and on his head was a faded purple knitted hat. So far so good.
An iPod was connected to small portable speakers balanced on a low wall. A faded floral tablecloth covered a shelf under a nearby window. On it, a vase of tulips glowed in a ray of sunlight, while old china plates held cookies, brownies, and raspberry bars.
"You're just in time," Eugene said, and began walking me through what was happening.
They were borrowing the landlord's dairy barn for shearing, he explained. Its space was better equipped to facilitate what needed to happen over the next few days. Eugene's barn and pasture were just over the next hill. "We'll go there in a while," he said.
To our far right, three shearers stood on makeshift plywood boards, their bodies bent over sheep splayed in awkward but effective positions. Their hands moved quickly and confidently, the metal blades working like snowplows to push thick white strips of fiber off the sheep's bodies.
Shorn fleeces were being gathered off the plywood floor and carried to a large slatted metal "skirting" table — a giant lazy Susan of sorts — where they were flung like pizza dough into the air, landing fully open on the table, their sheep-shaped outline still intact.
Three helpers immediately swooped in and began plucking dirty and undesirable bits from around the edges of the fleece, tossing them on the bare ground under the table. I could see no rhyme or reason to their work. Masses of grass and hay were being left, dark ugly bits around the edges stayed, too, while other areas were immediately — and with great intention — pulled and tossed.
"Would you like to have a turn?" Eugene asked, and they all stepped aside to make room for me. Overwhelmed by a feeling of total ineptitude, I pulled out my camera and urged them to keep working so I could document what they were doing. I'd never properly skirted a fleece before, but they were looking at me as if I were the expert.
As crucial as shearing is (and it is critical to a sheep's health), skirting and classing are even more critical if you hope to get good money for your wool. Skirting is the process of removing inferior and contaminated wool that would lower the value of your wool. Classing takes things one step further, grouping "like" wools with "like" wools so that that you can sell the finest wool in your clip for a better price. A good classer can gauge a fleece's fineness by sight and touch to within a micron. A bad classer can really mess things up.
Eugene wasn't selling his wool to someone else, so receiving top dollar for his clip wasn't really a concern. His flock had so little variability in fineness that all the fleeces from his Saxon Merinos were being bundled together — so they didn't need an experienced classer on hand either.
But they were still skirting. Eugene explained that the wool on the belly, the head (or "top knot"), and the legs ("britches") had already been left behind on the shearing board. "They're dirty," he said. "Not uniform."
Any kind of contamination — be it excess vegetable matter or urine-stained locks or even strands of polypropylene from a stray gate tie — will cause a yarn to spin poorly and lower the overall yield of that year's wool clip. "Yield" was another big thing for Eugene. Yield represents the amount of clean wool left after the raw wool has been scoured and all the dirt and grease removed. The higher the yield, the more usable wool you get from each sheep, the more potentially profitable your operation. American Delaine Merino sheep tend to grow greasier wool, bringing their yield down to an average of 50 percent, sometimes less. Eugene's flock regularly yielded 65 percent, occasionally higher. This was another indication that his attempts to breed to true Saxon Merino standards were paying off.
Back at the skirting table, shorter nubbins fell like confetti through the open slats and onto the ground below, where they'd later be raked up and used for garden compost. Those were second cuts, from areas where the shearer had run over the same spot twice. You remove those for much the same reason you check your pockets for Kleenex before doing laundry: They'll clump together during processing and leave little tufts of fluff behind in your yarn, ultimately making the fabric pill more quickly.
Tidied fleeces were then gathered and stuffed into a tall clear plastic bag — "I get them from Mid-States Wool," Eugene said, "four bucks apiece" — until even the tallest person standing on an upturned milk crate couldn't fit any more inside. It took two people to wrestle the bag to a far wall, where several others already stood, full from a busy morning.
While five hundred sheep seemed huge to me, it was tiny compared with the bigger sheep operators out west, whose flocks number in the thousands and, in a few cases, the tens of thousands. I say "operators," but they're really family-run ranches where the sheep are given abundant range to run. Where wool is concerned, there is no such thing as factory farming.
At shearing time, those bigger folks use hydraulic presses to jam their wool into five-hundred-pound square packs, Eugene explained. The square ones fit better in overseas shipping containers. But smaller farm flocks like his use these "sausage" packs or ones made from burlap. They hold a more manageable one- to two-hundred pounds of fleece, but their awkward shape makes them harder to transport in efficient loads.
Later that week Eugene would rent a twenty-four-foot truck and drive the unwieldy bags of wool to the defunct Bollman Hat Co. scouring plant in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, where they would join other bags from other farms on a bigger truck to Bollman's new facility in Texas. There, his fibers would be scoured, baled up, and shipped to the Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont, where they'd be spun into yarn before being returned to the farm, the cycle complete.
I glanced to my left and did a double take: Hundreds of curious eyes stared back at me. The sheep had been brought into the barn the day before and were standing in clusters patiently waiting their turn. They hadn't had food or water for a day, but nobody appeared to be complaining. "It just makes them a little more willing to cooperate," Eugene explained. "It also empties them out so they don't shit on the shearing floor."
A makeshift metal wire fence kept them from having the run of the barn, while another line of fence blocked off the back door, preventing them from escaping. These were the ewes, Eugene explained — a whole barn full of pregnant ladies who'd be delivering their lambs in just a few weeks. They were the easiest. The feisty rams came last.
In North America, most sheep are shorn in spring, ideally three to four weeks before the ewes start to deliver their lambs. You shear before lambing for much the same reason you'd mow turf before a golf tournament — to make it easier for lambs to find the teat and, with it, the vital antibodies from the ewe's colostrum that builds their own immune system. You're also eliminating any chance of those lambs accidentally nursing on manure-laden wool, which they can do, and which can also kill them.
As with humans, the hormonal surge ewes experience at lambing produces a weak spot in their fleece. By timing shearing so that this weak spot occurs near the outer edge of the fiber and not smack dab in the center, a shepherd can produce stronger, i.e., more valuable wool. When the weak spot falls in the middle, those fibers will likely break in half processing, leading to shorter fibers in a fabric that will pill more quickly. Shearing now will also keep sheep more comfortable during the hot summer months, while giving Eugene plenty of time to vaccinate the pregnant ewes so that they'll be able to provide those antibodies to their lambs.
Despite the speed and simplicity of this annual ritual, some continue to publicly question whether shearing is harmful to sheep. Some of those people (I'm looking at you, PETA) have gone so far as to urge us not to wear wool at all — the argument being that sheep need their coats more than we do, and that petrochemical-based fibers are somehow kinder. In actual fact, all wool-growing sheep need to be shorn at least once a year. Since their genetic trait to shed has been lost over thousands of years of cohabitation with us, it falls upon us, their responsible human companions, to remove their fleece for them. If we don't, their health and hygiene are quickly imperiled.
The longer a sheep goes unshorn, the greater its risk of "casting," or losing its balance and tipping onto its back. Unlike beetles, sheep lack the ability to right themselves once this happens. Eventually the gases in the sheep's rumen build up and press against the diaphragm, causing the sheep to slowly suffocate to death.
Worse yet is the increased risk of flystrike. (You might want to skip ahead if you're squeamish.) In sheep, the built-up urine and feces around the back area, or "breech," can be particularly attractive to parasitic flies. The flies lay eggs on the soiled wool, and when the maggots hatch, they bury themselves deep into the dark, warm folds of the sheep's skin and start feasting on flesh. While sheep with more wrinkles in their skin can be particularly vulnerable, all sheep are at risk — especially if they are not shorn annually.
In Australia, where acute flystrike is particularly common, a prevention technique was developed in the 1930s by a shearer named John Mules. Called "mulesing," the procedure involves surgically removing excess skin around a lamb's breech. While this "butt-lift" helps prevent flystrike, it is usually performed without anesthetics, which has raised concerns among animal-rights groups.
Today mulesing is practiced only in Australia and only by some producers. Others have successfully implemented humane prevention techniques and can offer non-mulesed Australian wool. Still, the bad press on mulesing led many to conclude that any purchase of wool, no matter where it's from or how the sheep were raised, is a vote for cruelty. If you could see what was happening in Goshen, you'd know this is simply not true.
All of the Saxon Merino sheep in Eugene's flock are direct descendants of five prize-winning Saxon Merino studs he flew to the United States from Australia in 1990, just a few years after Australia lifted its ban on their exportation. Their bloodlines had reached Australia from what is now Germany, where they'd been a gift to Prince Xavier the Elector of Saxony from his cousin, Charles III of Spain. If Merino is to wool what gold is to precious metals, Saxon Merino is among the purest and most highly valued variants.
At shearing time, weather is always the biggest concern. A freak ice storm the day after shearing can be devastating to the flock, just as snow or rain can be to the wool during the days before. You don't want to remove a sheep's insulation right before an extreme weather event; nor do you want to shear a wet sheep, as the wool will rot very quickly once it's bagged.
Fortunately, the weather was in our favor: dry and cold the whole week. The high was in the mid-thirties. The sun was warm and bright, although it was much, much colder in the shade. I'd been warned to wear warm clothes. Unsure how dirty the whole shearing experience would be at his farm, I'd bought a cheap puffy purple jacket that looked ridiculous and made me feel instantly out of place. We kept going back into Eugene's truck to talk. It had no naked-lady mudflaps, though it did have leopard-print seat covers — but they were covered with sheepskins and coffee stains.