Learning how to shear a sheep takes practice and time. Before you head out to buy sheep shearing supplies try to observe a professional sheep shearer and ask questions. The first few times are going to be a little frustrating unless you learn the basics of handling the sheep, what shearing supplies to purchase, and how to use them. Skilled sheep shearers make flipping a sheep look easy because they do hundreds of sheep a week during peak shearing season. Shearing is something that cannot be avoided when you raise sheep unless you are raising the hair breeds such as Barbados Blackbelly, or Katahdin sheep. Even those who raise Suffolk sheep, primarily for market lambs, still need to shear sheep yearly for the health and well-being of the flock.
Most sheep are shorn in the early spring before the heat builds and the flies hatch. There are reasons why early spring shearing is the time most shepherds choose.
- Wool continues to grow if not shorn, making the sheep uncomfortable. The heavy wool begins to pull on the skin and can lead to skin sores. Those sores can attract flies, leading to possible fly strike.
- Unshorn sheep become itchy in the heat and begin rubbing on hay racks, fences and each other. This can lead to fence damage and damaged fleece. Rubbing the wool causes the fleece to felt on the sheep’s body.
- Flystrike. The dirty unshorn wool invites flies. Shearing the wool before the flies hatch, gets rid of the dirty soiled fleece. Any cuts or abrasions that occur during shearing will heal quickly before fly season.
- Early shearing gives the shepherd a chance to assess the animal’s condition after the winter. Condition refers to the animal’s weight, and also health. Check eyes, ears, body mass, feet, and tail area. Check for redness or irritation in the genital and urethra area.
Unless you are trained, sheep shearing is better when performed by a skilled professional. This does not mean you can’t learn! There is much that can be learned by shearing with a skilled shearer by your side to guide you. Observing would be the first step in learning how to shear a sheep. Remember that the skilled shearer will make the job look rather easy. The job is quite taxing physically. If you don’t feel able to handle the physical requirement of the job, it might be better to hire a professional.
Having Supplies Ready will Make Shearing Day More Pleasant
Whether you hire a professional or choose to do the job yourself, get all your shearing supplies ready before you start. Have a favorite treat for your animals nearby too. Lay out a large tarp to work on. You can learn how to shear a sheep with a shearing machine, or with manual sheep shears. Learning how to shear a sheep using different equipment will make you an even better shearer.
Equipment and Supplies to Gather
- Large tarp to cover the ground and catch the fleece as it falls
- Plastic bags for temporary clean storage
- Animal treats
- Water for you
- Broom for sweeping between animals
- Extension cord for the shearing clippers
- Blue-Kote, Swat, Cornstarch in case of accidental cuts or scratches
- Scissors for cleaning up around ears, tail other small areas
The Shearing Clippers
It is important to note and discuss that the clippers used to shear wool-yielding animals are not the same as clippers used on dogs, horses or other pets. Sheep shearing equipment is expensive and care should be taken of the clippers during shearing day and after. The clippers require a cutting blade and a shearing comb. Often the combs are designed for particular types of fleece. Before purchasing, learn which fleece type you have and then purchase the combs that most closely match your animal’s fleece.
How to Shear a Sheep
The optimal result for a fleece that will be sought after by spinners and crafters is one that is removed in one piece. Often referred to as “unzipping” the fleece, the shearer will begin by flipping the sheep onto its backside so it is sitting like a dog, but leaning back onto the shearer’s legs.
The brisket or chest area is sheared first. Stay close to the animal’s body while avoiding going over the same area twice. That is called second cuts and those will reduce the value of your fleece. Hand spinners do not want the short second cuts as they spin and the commercial machines often can’t make a good roving out of fleece with second cuts in it. After the chest, and lower neck area, the shearer will work down one side of the animal, the flank on one side and then part of the back. The fleece is still in one piece as the shearer shifts the sheep to the other side and repeats the process, eventually leading to a release of the full fleece. After removing the fleece from the area the shearer will go back over the lower legs, dock area, and crotch to remove the soiled wool. This is usually discarded.
Sheep shearing jobs are often plentiful in the spring. Learning how to shear a sheep may be a good way to supplement your income.
Now you have your beautiful, homegrown fleece, ready to be further crafted into roving, felted mats, clouds of fiber and a wide variety and styles of yarns. The fleece will need some processing first, however.
Shearing Other Wool-Bearing Animals
Once you understand the basics of shearing and how to shear a sheep, you won’t have any problem learning to shear other fiber animals. Llamas, Alpacas, Angora and Pygora goats also require an annual or twice-yearly shearing. The process can be similar although quite a few professional shearers use a mat system when shearing the goats and alpacas and llamas. This system stretches the animal out on its side for shearing, the animal is flipped to the other side and the process is completed.
Another method uses a stand similar to a milking stand. When shearing this way, the animal is sheared down both sides individually. Since goat fiber is not usually released as a single fleece anyway, this works out well if you are not able to flip the animal and handle the animal while shearing.
Steps for Cleaning The Fleece
If you are having the fleece commercially processed by a fiber mill, you only need to remove large pieces of debris from the fleece before rolling it up and storing it.
Selling the fleece yourself will require a few more steps to make it attractive to the hand spinning community. Washing the fleece is done in a really large tub. You need room for the fleece to soak in the water without it being agitated which leads to felting. I recommend a 40 gallon or larger tub. Use hot water for the first wash with your choice of wool detergent. When rinsing and draining the fleece be careful to not twist or scrub the fleece. Gently press the water out. Refill the tub with slightly warm water and repeat the process. Repeat the process until the water is clear. Using a cup of white vinegar during one of the final rinses will help remove some soap residue. Lay the fleece out on a screened table to dry. Occasionally fluff the fleece to help the air circulate. When the fleece is completely dry it is ready to be sold or stored for further processing. Storing in a cloth bag is better than a plastic bag. Adding some fresh lavender in a mesh bag while storing will help repel pests and rodents.
What Can You do with the Wool Fleece?
Many craft styles are possible from this point. Learning to spin, felt, knit, crochet and weave are a few skills to try. At some point, you may want to try your hand at using natural dyes for wool. So many colors can be found in nature. Perhaps you will want to start a garden specifically as a dyers garden and harvest beautiful colors for your yarns. The journey from sheep to yarn has been extremely enjoyable for us. There are unlimited directions and paths to take when starting the journey of raising sheep and learning how to shear a sheep for your fiber needs.
Originally published in 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.