Raw Material: Working Wool in the West takes readers through the state of American wool as we follow author Stephany Wilkes through the process of becoming a certified sheep shearer. Along the way, we meet people along the wool supply chain and learn about the challenges faced by wool growers and processors. Alternating between humor, exhaustion, joy, and frustration, the story of American wool as presented by Wilkes is fascinating for more than just those who have an interest in wool or textiles.
Gary hollers, “Well?! Go in and get that sheep!” He opens the pen door and waves at me to follow him in. All morning, I’ve gazed at pen walls and, inside, the sheeps’ relative heights, yet their true, far taller sizes did not register until I stood beside them. In that close pen, I am gobsmacked by the reality of relative scale: their heads nearly reach my waist, and I am five feet eleven.
“Pony sized,” I say to Gary with a nervous laugh.
The sheep run around and slam into my legs, hooves pounding the tops of my feet, covered in soft, felted wool slippers that offer no protection. No video could possibly convey how large, hot, fast, and determined a single sheep can be.
“Show you how to catch one,” Gary says.
He slips the palm of his left hand firmly beneath the sheep’s jaw, cupping it. “If this does not work,” he says, “though it usually does, stick your thumb into the corner of the sheep’s mouth, clear through until your thumb exits the other corner. They got a smooth spot between their incisors and molars without teeth in it. Do it on this one so you feel it.”
I stare at him. Stick my thumb into a sheep’s mouth?
“Get on with it!” Gary says.
Gingerly, I tap my left thumb around the edge of the sheep’s mouth and, just as he said, I feel a gap between her teeth and push my thumb through, like a bit on a horse halter. He’s right: it’s smooth, feels like the space my wisdom teeth left.
“All right,” Gary says, his palm and four remaining fingers still holding the bottom of the sheep’s jaw. “Now you put your hand where mine is, get a feel for it. Gently. Doesn’t require much force. Your hand can almost rest on the sheep’s jaw. They don’t want to walk forward into the pressure of your hand, so they stop. They will back away from it, though, so put your right hand on her tail.”
The sheep’s jaw is level with my hip, so I only have to extend my arm a little to cup my hand around the sheep’s jaw. Touching wool on a living, breathing being feels more like submerging my hand in warm oil than touching yarn. Miraculously, the sheep does not move. I smile at Gary.
“Okay, good. Give her back,” he says, taking over.
Gary cups the sheep’s jaw again, and turns her head toward her right shoulder, the sheep’s nose pointing toward her back. “This causes the sheep to lower its butt and begin to lay down, in order to become more comfortable,” Gary says. “As she begins to sit down, you want to use that being off balance to your advantage.”
Gary pushes his right knee into the sheep’s left hip and, at the same time, gently pulls the sheep’s right haunch toward him: a synchronized push and pull in opposing directions. The sheep’s turned head, the pressure of Gary’s knee, and the sheep’s right leg being lifted off the floor causes her to lose balance and, at that precise moment, Gary swiftly flips the sheep over onto her back. “Your turn!” he says, as the sheep stands up. Right.
Stephany Wilkes is a writer, sheep shearer, knitter and very slow sewer in Northern California. She is lucky to share her life with Ian and a not-so-failed livestock guardian dog, Dude.