Learning Ahead: Season of Sheep Shearing
The Fiber Arts & Local Farming:
Sheep Shearing & Knitting
In the 19th century, Western Massachusetts saw a huge merino sheep boom when many farms purchased Australian sheep for their incredibly soft fleece to produce wool for textiles. The Hilltowns’ landscape provided ideal pasture for livestock grazing.
Although this craze for merino wool did not last long, and some of the farms no longer exist, there is still a rich and long tradition of fiber farms in Western Massachusetts that continue to produce fiber and yarn for hand knitters and textile artists.
The benefit of purchasing local yarn is that you are more involved in and aware of the entire process of producing your wool. Unlike commercially produced yarn, which is often processed and shipped from overseas, local yarn speaks to the land and farmers that cared for the sheep and cultivated the land. Often, the wool is processed locally and requires many hands to create it: from the farmer that cares for the animals to the sheep shearer, spinners and hand-dyers, locally grown yarn offer the hand knitter a deeper connection to our community’s agricultural roots. It also supports the local economy and helps foster collaboration and sustainable consumption.
A few local independent shops to help you with your knitting adventures:
Sheep to Shawl
Sheep to Shawl in Deerfield, MA, hosts a variety of public workshops, talks, and events centered around fiber arts and knitting. Sheep to Shawl also carries a variety of local yarns produced in the Pioneer Valley and Northern Berkshires, offering knitters a great introduction to yarns from our region. sheepandshawl.com
Located in Northampton, MA this independent yarn store also offers knitting classes for both experienced and beginner knitters. www.northamptonwools.com
Sheep shearing is a laborious process and requires practice and skill. Historically, it was practiced with blade shears that look much like large scissors. Today, shearing is done with different blades powered by electricity, making the process more efficient. Almost all sheep require shearing since sheep do not go through a typical shedding cycle like most animals. It’s important to shear their fleece before the warmer months to prevent overheating. The fleece from shearing is what knitters and fiber artists utilize to produce yarn. Spring is the most common time of year to shear.
For fiber farmers, shearing once a year allows for longer fibers and therefore higher quality yarn. Farmers contact local shearers once a year to shear their flocks. As mentioned above, learning to shear is a skill that takes time and practice. To learn more about shearing visit UMass Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment.
Check our weekly column, Learn Local. Play Local., for community-based educational opportunities to support your interests in animal husbandry, textile arts, and New England history.
[Photo credits: (c) Sienna Wildfield]
Download our March/April edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.