So the sheep, newly shorn, are out grazing. The lambs have found their mothers, and the mothers their lambs. The shearer is going down the driveway, sinews stretched. The fleeces have been tied and maybe bagged, too. What’s to be done with all that wool?
Before it goes off to be washed and spun, it needs to be sorted, which means that it must be gone through, bit by bit: vegetable matter must be removed, whether it’s digested or not, and the year’s accumulation of dirt and dust should be dislodged. All our sheep produce coarse wool, but if we had a few fine wool sheep, their wool would be separated. The pictured table is a good thing to spread a fleece on because some of these things shake out. Not all, alas, but some. Going through lock by lock is called skirting and in addition to getting the debris out, it permits the sorter to remove the “tender” fibers, “tenderness” being a product of a fever sometimes, or a gap in nutrition: if you pull on both ends of a piece of wool and it breaks in the middle, it’s tender. Sometimes a part of a fleece will have felted itself, and that can be removed. Those fibers do not belong in the finished product but they can be kept at home, maybe for the cats’ bed, maybe to put in boots.
After all that hand work, what’s left to be washed? The lanolin for Border Leicesters weighs about 30% of the fleece and that’s what the washing process will remove. Three bags full, the black sheep sang; but if they were full, they hadn’t been skirted. No wonder the little boy down the lane was crying.
Jerry Wigglesworth, © December, 2014