Sheep and Fiber at Gale Woods

By: Tim Reese

February 25, 2019

Category: Farm Connections

On a chilly winter day, what could feel better than a warm pair of wool socks, felted wool slippers or that trusty old rag wool sweater? Or even better — wearing those items while sitting in front of a cozy wood stove while knitting a wool hat?

Wool is a versatile fiber that has been woven into human history for thousands of years and sheep have being performing the double duty of clothing and feeding us since our ancestors first settled down and started practicing agriculture.

Sheep were likely the first domesticated form of livestock, with the Mesopotamians beginning the process of raising them for meat around 10,000 B.C.

Breeding efforts over the centuries have led to many different types of sheep suited to different climates all over the world. There are sheep with wool; sheep with hair; sheep with horns, no horns, multiple sets of horns; stocky sheep for meat; sheep with silky soft wool; sheep with puffy short wool and on and on.

At Gale Woods Farm, we have tried a few different breeds of sheep and settled primarily on the Finnish Landrace or Finnsheep.

All About Finnsheep

three lambs grazing on grass.

Finnsheep originated in Finland and were first imported to North America in the 1960s. We chose them for Gale Woods for several reasons:

  • They are relatively small with an adult ewe (female) weighing less than 125 pounds.
  • They are also very friendly and sociable. As a result, they are quite approachable for our many farm visitors.
  • Finnsheep are also very prolific or good at having multiple births. While most breeds have single or twin lambs, it is expected for a Finn ewe to have triplets. Quadruplets and quintuplets are not uncommon.

    In 2018 we had one ewe deliver 6 lambs! Some farmers cross breed Finnsheep genetics into other breeds in order to increase the number of twins and triplets in their flock. However, they avoid pure breeds and the resulting quadruplets because a ewe can’t nurse that many babies and there is extra labor in bottle feeding. At Gale Woods, however, we have lots of little helpers for that chore!
  • Most importantly, we chose Finnsheep because they have wonderful wool for felting. Felting is a process the uses warm, soapy water and agitation to shape wool into decorative or wearable items. The tiny scales or hooks on wool interlock and enable a felter to shape wool into almost anything.

    Finnsheep fleeces felt very well because they have a high crimp, which means the fleece has a lot of scales or hooks that help it bind together and felt quickly. The fleece also has a high luster and is soft against the skin, which makes felted wearables very comfortable.

From Sheep to Fashion

mannequin head sporting a felt hat and felt scarf

While wool is a wonderful and versatile fiber, it is a lot of work to take if from sheep to sweater.

The sheep at Gale Woods are shorn (the process of cutting off wool) once or twice a year. All of the sheep are shorn in the spring and some sheep grow wool fast enough that they need to also be shorn in the fall or the fibers become too long to felt.
 
An experienced sheep shearer is very important because it needs to be done well or fleece quality suffers.

We are fortunate because Doug Rathke, one of the best sheep shearers in the world, lives just down the road in Hutchinson and is willing to come shear our small flock and demonstrate his vocation to the public at our sheep shearing festival. He even puts up with my baaaaad jokes, like: Where does a sheep get a haircut? At the baar-baar shop!

After shearing, the fleeces are skirted. This is the process of picking all the hay chaff and junk out of the fibers. We try to keep them clean by putting coats on the sheep during the winter while they are eating hay, but they still get pretty messy.

group of people picking hay out of wool

After skirting, the fleeces are washed in several hot, soapy water baths without agitation. Once cleaned, they are carded, which is the process of straightening the fibers with a larger brush-covered drum.

The final product is called roving, which is a thick, chunky yarn that is not twisted like other types of yarn.

colorful balls of yarn

Finnsheep come in several beautiful natural colors, so at Gale Woods we have become known for having many shades of brown and gray. We also sell dyed roving in many colors and use the roving for classes at the farm.

If you’d like to learn more, visit Gale Woods on March 2 for the annual sheep shearing festival. We’ll have a wooly good time!

About the Author

Tim Reese from the shoulders up in a button-up shirt and a blue ball cap in front of a red building

Tim Reese has been the Farm Supervisor at Gale Woods Farm since it opened in 2003. He manages the facility, livestock and gardens at this educational and production farm. While he has been known to don a scarecrow costume and sing a raucous version of Old MacDonald at Halloween events, he believes that food production and farmers have a serious and important role to play in protecting our environment and promoting land stewardship. When not busy at Gale Woods, Tim enjoys cross-country skiing, biking and exploring the natural world with his family.

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