I shear

I spend a weekend at Lena’s place, helping her shear her Dalapäls sheep while Dan skips around taking photos for my upcoming book Listen to the wool. I shear Parisa, Orkidé and Frida and learn from the wool producers themselves.

Dan and I drive an hour or so south to Lena, an experienced spinner, and her ten Dalapäls ewes. Usually she shears them a lot earlier, perhaps in early March, a few weeks before lambing. This year, though, the sheep are not in gestation, for the first time since she got them 18 years ago. Therefore there is no rush in getting them shorn.

Shearing prep

Since Lena got the sheep she has most of the time shorn them herself twice a year with hand shears. She has never owned a shearing table. Instead, she has simply placed the sheep in her lap and started shearing where she could and in no particular order. This time, though, she has borrowed two home-made shearing tables and is super excited. We place them facing each other in the middle of the narrow shearing pen. They have a remarkable resemblance to sheep.

A pen with two shearing tables, surrounded by baskets, boxes and bowls with apples.
The shearing tables that look like sheep. We’re all set for bringing out the flock.

We bring out the newly sharpened shears, boxes for spinning wool and garden wool respectively, pens to mark the boxes with the sheep’s names, all sorts of bribes, and fence in the narrow shearing pen. All the while Dan sharpens his lenses, ready to portray the flock.

A to Q

When Lena got the sheep she gave them names beginning with the letter A, and every year the names of the lambs begin with the next letter of the alphabet. Usually visiting children get to name them. Her oldest sheep now is Ester and the youngest Quinoa. Before Lena lets the sheep out from the shed I peak inside and meet Quinoa’s curious-cautious eyes.

Portrait of a white sheep peeking out from a loose board in a sheep shed. There is hay and straw in her fleece.
Quinoa peaks out from the sheep shed before we let them out to the shearing pen.

Lena herds the flock from the shed, through the larger pen and into the narrow pen. After a few minutes of sizzling and bleating, the sheep quieten and all we can hear is soft chewing. Lena shears Ester’s fine fleece while I work on the considerably younger Parisa, only 2 years old. The names come from two of Lena’s grandchildren. Since the sheep have had access to silage in a trough indoors during the winter, there is a lot of hay in their locks and we start by brushing the fleeces to remove some of it. The rhythmic motions seem to have a calming effect on the girls.

I shear

I have tried shearing twice before. The first time on a course in small-scale sheep farming back in 2014 (where it took three people three hours to shear one sheep). The second time was with Lena five years later, with her signature lap technique. I started, but after a while the sheep slithered away from my inexperienced grip. Lena caught her and had no trouble shearing two sheep in her lap.

Now, another five years later I am not sure whether I am any help to Lena or actually a burden. But even if my shearing skills need some sharpening, I know I can assist her where she needs an extra pair of hands.

Close-up of two half-mittened hands shearing a white sheep. Ridges across the body where the fleece is already shorn.
After a while I find a technique that works for me. In the upper right corner you can see how the fleece is denser toward the spine. Photo by Dan Waltin.

Parisa ruminates calmly as I place the shears with a trembling hand across her back. The rest of the sheep huddle together and mind their own business. Quinoa gently nibbles at the pull tab on my my leg pocket zipper.

The beginning is tricky; I need to find a spot along the spine where I can insert the tips of the shears in the dense fleece and open sort of a path from back to front. Once I have that it’s easier to follow and broaden. I fiddle, but after a while I find a method that works. Parisa is warm and and calm under my hands, and helps me find my confidence and work on my skills to make both her and the shorn fleece pretty. The lanolin glistens in the spring sun and my skin enjoys the moisturizing.

In the living room

Here I am, belly to belly with the sheep who has produced this magnificent wool as a shield against the elements, and it is my duty and privilege to free her of it. I won’t get any closer to the wool than this. I am in Parisa’s living room, exploring her habits through what I find – what seeds and plants are common in her pasture, what’s on the menu in her silage and what side she likes to sleep on. It’s all there.

Two sets of wool staples, one with around 8 centimeter rectangular shaped fine and crimpy staples. The other cone shaped, over 20 centimeter and straight with a wide base and narrow tips.
Typical staples from Frida (left) and Parisa (right).

What’s more, I get to experience the wool right on her back. I learn how the wool behaves and what wool quality grows where on her body, while she is breathing and chewing right underneath my hands. I go through every fiber with the shears, transforming them from her shield to a product for me. In return for this invaluable gift I have the responsibility to translate it into a shield for me, into the best yarn I can possibly make from the superpowers of this magnificent wool.

A woman spinning white wool straight from the newly shorn fleece, the sheep standing on the shearing table with the shorn fleece hanging down her sides.
I soak in everything I learn from Parisa’s wool as I shear. Photo by Dan Waltin

As I slowly shear my way through the layers of wool I find and remove larger pieces of vegetation matter, poo and my own second cuts. The wool I place in the bag is wonderfully clean and airy, the wool I remove will serve as fertilizer and soil improvement for my garden beds. For every inch I shear I learn something new. I welcome and cherish what Parisa has to teach me through her wool, right there in her living room.

Follow the curves

I do quite well over the back and down across the sides in sort of a saddle shape. But all of a sudden, the belly curves and I find myself shearing further and further from the skin. The thick fleece does nothing to help me understand the shape of the body and I need to change the angle and rethink my path for every layer I shear. Even further down the belly the skin is looser and the risk of breaking it is higher.

A hand reaching out to a newly shorn white sheep amongst in-shorn sheep.
A newly shorn Parisa.

Shearing truly takes concentration. Concave shapes around the leg insertions make me sweat and I shear smaller and smaller amounts with longer and longer pauses to breathe and assess where to go next. Parisa is approaching the height of her fleece denseness age (which I have leaned is around 3–4 years of age), but it turns out that her fleece gets even more challenging to penetrate; towards the belly the wool suddenly becomes considerably thicker and greasier, and I find it hard to even find a spot to insert the shears. Lena comes to my rescue and does the most difficult parts – belly, crotch, udders and neck.

As we finally open the neck holder and Parisa skips down on the ground, her flock sisters curiously sniff the assumed newcomer and start butting her. She is soon followed by Ester and the butting ceases slightly.

Spring and autumn shearing

We have a nourishing soup lunch in the afternoon sun and get back to work with another couple of sheep – Lena shears Nehne (whose autumn fleece I bought a couple of years ago to finish my two-end knitted jacket sleeves) and I Orkidé (Swedish for orchid). Her wool is even longer and a little more tricky to shear than Parisa’s, but I have a better technique now and my confidence is heightened.

Usually spring shorn wool has a lower quality than the autumn shorn wool. This has to do with the cold that results in more lanolin, indoor feeding, which can end up in the fleece, and gestation, where the fetuses can take lots of the nutrients. Since these ladies aren’t in gestation this year, the wool has an even quality over the length of the staples, be it a little greasier and with a little more vegetation matter. Lena reminds herself to buy silage without timothy next winter; we find lots of the miniature cigarrs that, tangled in a fleece, are ticking seed bombs.

Bad time for shearing

Both Parisa and Orkidé have patches of extremely dense wool, especially under the belly and along the spine, that Lena has never experienced before with her sheep. She asks around in social media and understands that April and May are the worst months for shearing sheep – this is peak lanolin time, while June is a month where the greasiest outgrowth has grown past the skin and left less greasy outgrowth underneath, according to some of the replies. Rumour has it that shearing in June works like butter.

A white sheep on a shearing table. She is shorn in a semi-circle shape across her back.
I work faster and more efficient as I shear Orkidé. Still, she has denser fleece and I need Lena’s help towards the belly, crotch and neck.

I give up on Orkidé way sooner than I did with Parisa – the lower side and belly wool is impossible to penetrate and I ask Lena to take over. She is of course way more experienced than I, and I assume the sheep feel safer with her fiddling with scissors at their crotches than a complete stranger and hopeless beginner. This doesn’t mean I can’t help, though – while Lena gives Orkidé a well needed pedicure I drape myself softly over the freshly shorn back like a weighted blanket. She calms down and I can feel her belly rumble against mine.

When Orkidé finally skips down from the table, shorn and trimmed, tiredness hits me in the head with a hammer. I realize I have focused deeply snip by snip for 2 x 2 hours.


Dalapäls sheep have traditionally grazed in the forest. For this reason they have a strong sense of the flock and are watchful for predators. We are in fact in wolf territory, and since a couple of years Lena brings her flock indoors every night. Her chicken coop next to the sheep pen is empty – all the chickens were taken a couple of years ago by what Lena believes to have been a ferret.

The flock instinct becomes very clear on the second day when we let them out from their shed. The aim is to drive them through the larger pen into the narrower shearing pen. The flock rushes out into the larger pen, but refuses to go into the shearing pen. They circle like a school of fish, constantly huddling fleece to fleece. Lena places me (the assumed preadator) in one corner of the larger pen while she herds them towards the other end and the entrance to the shearing pen.

Mud, grease and manure

After about ten minutes she succeeds and we can close the gate and scooch the next sheep onto the table. We choose Frida, who is old and has quite fine fleece that is considerably easier to shear than the fleeces of the two younger ewes I worked with the day before. We work together from the start this time – Lena with the hardcore spots and I on the breezy back and sides.

I’m tired today, my brain has worked overtime and processed all through the night. The rain makes my lanoliny hands slippery, the photos I take are all blurry through greasy lenses. But Frida’s fine fleece is so much easier to get through, though, and Lena and I have found a way to work together with a mutual understanding of what needs to be done and where. Frida is old and has more concave parts and loose skin. I need to find ways through the hollows and take extra care not to cut through her skin. As Lena does the hoof service with her rose snips, I once again drape myself over the warm sheep back. Lena decides to hold the shearing for the remaining five sheep a few weeks to see if it works better in June.

When Dan and I go back home we have two bags of manure in the trunk, beside a bag of poopy wool and two bags of spinning wool. Not many people would know what a treasure that is. A wave of gratitude rushes through me, for all I have learned from both two- and four-legged friends.

Tack, Lena!

Happy spinning!

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