Women aren’t sheepish about learning to shear

A GROUP of local women gathered on a Bennettsbridge farm last week in preparation for the Sheep and Wool Festival in Cillín Hill over the June bank holiday weekend. But unlike those who will be competing in the All-Ireland and International Sheep Shearing and Wool Handling Championships 2011 that weekend, for some it was their first time to shear a sheep.

A GROUP of local women gathered on a Bennettsbridge farm last week in preparation for the Sheep and Wool Festival in Cillín Hill over the June bank holiday weekend. But unlike those who will be competing in the All-Ireland and International Sheep Shearing and Wool Handling Championships 2011 that weekend, for some it was their first time to shear a sheep.

On Thursday afternoon, participants in a project led by the Arts Office and the community section of Kilkenny County Council visited the farm to participate in the shearing of 17 Zwartable sheep on a farm run by Suzanna Crampton. This breed is a sheep with black wool that lightens to a dark brown in the sunlight over the course of a year until it is sheared.

Having already met for four knitting sessions, the women were able to see the exact source of the fleece they will be using to create an exhibition for the Sheep Shearing Championships. Yesterday (Tuesday) they visited Cushendale Woollen Mill in Graignamanagh, where the wool was carded and spun; and over the coming weeks in knitting and felting workshops the 15 participants will create their final piece, with the theme ‘Seating’.

This initiative, the ‘Kilkenny/Interreg Knitting Project – Bringing the Rural to the Urban’, is funded by the Ireland Wales Programme 2007-2013 and is a continuation of a knitting project with 2010 Arts Office artist-in-residence Deirdre Harte.

With many participants over the age of 50, it is also linked with Kilkenny’s Age-Friendly County initiative and the Craft Council of Ireland’s ‘Year of Craft’.

Shearing

To start the shearing process, Suzanna separated the ewes from their young calves, warning that this would make them “a little bit temperamental”. Once lined up and ready for their annual trim, professional shearer Andrew Forristal took the first ewe and demonstrated how it should be positioned, starting to shave from the belly and around the body to end up with one continuous piece of fleece.

These 17 sheep would be a slow day at the office for Andrew, whose typical workload in a day means about 100 sheep, or as many as 200. All-Ireland champion shearer George Graham, who joined the group later in the afternoon, holds the record for shearing 483 ewes in nine hours – an average of nearly one per minute. Also on hand to assist was Marie Doyle, event organiser of the Sheep Shearing Championships, joined by arts officer Mary Butler and community and development officer Lindsey Butler.

So there plenty of time to allow the group to try their hand at shearing. “Get in close to the skin and you won’t do any harm,” Andrew advised one of the women. “If you’re used to it, it’s not hard to know where the body is.”

Starting down towards the tail and working around the body, he explained that anyone can use the shearer, “but it’s the holding of the sheep that’s the important thing”.

With the queue of sheep bleating away, making it known that they were anxious to get back to their lambs, the participants helped to shear the flock, including two “white sheep of the family”.

Alan Slattery of local film production company Mycrofilms even took a break from filming footage for a documentary of the project to give it a try. (In addition to recording the project on film, one of the goals in including Mycrofilms is to add an intergenerational element, and Mycrofilms is known for using Kilkenny as a backdrop in its work, Lindsey Butler pointed out.)

Making their way through the ewes and then the males, the shearers explain that the process is more difficult earlier in the year, because the wool is tighter and hasn’t been loosened by the sun. (In fact, they said, on a warm day the ideal time for shearing is between noon and 4pm, for the same reason.)

Sustainable

One of the main points of the project is that a focus on sustainability. From the initial knitting workshops using waste product from a Dublin factory, to participating in the shearing and witnessing the processing of the wool, it is a hands-on experience for the women from start to finish. And with rising oil prices increasing the cost of cotton, it also mirrors a renewed interest in lower-cost wool.

There is also a social aspect and the learning of new skills, and those involved hope it will give people yet another reason to visit the Sheep and Wool Festival in Cillín Hill, Kilkenny on June 4 and 5.