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Kevin Ford Shearing Notes

By Kevin Ford

      Kevin Ford is America’s foremost “blade” (hand) sheepshearer. He has made his living at it for over 20 years, conducts many workshops and public demonstrations, and wrote the finest book on blade shearing available today: Shearing Day: Sheep Handling, Wool Science, And Shearing With Blades. [Available in hardcover from sheep! Bookstore]

      Send your questions about shearing to Shearing Notes, c/o Kevin Ford, 279 Warner Hill Road, Charlemont, MA 01339 or via e-mail to sheepmagazine@citynet.net.

How Much Help?

What is the ideal number of people helping at shearing time? I want to speed up and better the sheep shearing process on our small farm.

Are you skirting fleeces and sorting wool into different grades, colors or qualities? Perhaps the sorter could also be the one who gathers the fleece, but only if he or she can manage to get a fleece on and off the sorting table in much less time than it takes the shearer to shear the next sheep.

A good tight penning of the sheep with an easily operated door will allow the shearer to catch his or her own sheep. The catching pen though needs to be small, holding perhaps 10 to 12 crowded sheep, otherwise there is too much commotion and delay in the catching. But the pen will need to be quickly filled by someone when the last sheep is caught.

You know the tasks—picking up the wool, sweeping the board, perhaps assisting at the pen door, perhaps dealing with the movement of the released, shorn sheep. It’s good if the shepherd is available if the shearer wants to relate something he or she sees while shearing, and to oversee things.

No one will be busy all the time, and the same number of people could serve were there two or three shearers, figuring they would not likely be finishing sheep at once. But as the shearer finishes the sheep there needs to be several quick-moving people to keep a shearer working at his or her best pace and the whole operation working most efficiently.

Blade Shearing Evolution

Has hand shearing evolved over the years? And what are the improvements?

The greatest evolution in blade shearing appears to have happened with the expansion of flock size, both in North America and in Australia, in the last half of the 19th Century.

The opening of huge territories for sheep grazing followed the industrial revolution that began with the mechanization of textile manufacturing.

The impetus for greater, more efficient production reached down to the shearers who found themselves for the first time facing the task of shearing thousands of sheep.

They took on the task, and pushed themselves, and one another, shearing in crews of as many as 40 men, towards more skillful and efficient work.

Most of the development in modern methods of blade preparation and pattern of shearing occurred then.

There were more changes in pattern made during the first half of the last century until the patterns for both machine and blade shearing became standardized in the 1950s and 1970s, and little has changed since.

These changes have not spread everywhere, and one can see older methods in Eastern Europe and Palestine, and even Scotland. But they are catching on.

The inclusion of blade shearing at the World Golden Shears Championships since 1994, and the participation of shearers from Scotland, Slovenia, Romania, and others in this event means those blade shearers meeting and conferring with shearers from New Zealand and South Africa, who use the most evolved methods in pattern and blade preparation.

“My Aching Back!”

Every year after shearing just one sheep my back is about to kill me! How will I ever postpone the pain even after the second, third, etc.?

Stand for a moment while shearing, take a deep breath, breathing into the back, count to five, and keep shearing. This allows for blood to return to flexed muscles.

It’s wonderful how we adapt. The muscles will respond by building strength and endurance.

One or two other things you can do to manage back pain—which is really just back muscle fatigue.

Yoga exercises are often focused on building back flexibility and strength. If one isn’t shearing regularly, one has to exercise these muscles another way.

Improve your shearing technique. As one gets better at shearing one strains the back muscles less, using good positioning of the feet for control of the sheep.

Though it was more than 30 years ago, I remember the back pain I had shearing those first sheep. Now, when observers ask, “How does your back take it?” I usually have no comment. When they courteously ask, “How is your back?” I give a one-word response: “Strong.”

Shearing is not backbreaking work, but back-strengthening work.

How Often To Sharpen?

How often do I need to sharpen my blades during shearing? Is one pair of blades enough? And what kind of stone should I use?

I sharpen, or hone, my blades after each sheep I shear. It means a little setting up for this, and fifteen seconds taken between sheep.

It also means a final bevel on the blades that is ground thin enough to be responsive to this light honing.

The idea is to keep a very sharp edge. If you have the knowledge to do this I’d recommend it. Sharp shears make the work easier, the effort of the hand, and attending effort of the mind, less.

If you are using the smaller Number 10 blades and have not pulled them back to take more wool at a clip, and don’t grind the bevel thin, then a good bench-top sharpening can be sufficient for shearing 10 to 20 sheep,depending on the shearing.

This is what I remember from once shearing this way. I’d carry two shears, plus an older pair as a backup, and sharpen at a bench each morning before going off. The kind of sheep, and the time of year though, make a difference—the density and strength of the wool, the grease and sweat present.

A diamond stone, soft Arkansas, or common “hardware-store stone” will do for sharpening.

Lubricate the stone with soapy water, or a honing oil. “Three-In-One” brand lubricant (used for sewing machines) does well.

A new stone needs to be soaked, in either the water or the oil, so the lubricant floats the abraded metal particles from the stone’s surface.

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