Learning to Shear Sheep at Howell Living History Farm

By Lauren Wanko

“This is like a haircut,” said Howell Living History Farm Director Peter Watson.

It’s sheep shearing season at the Mercer County Park Commission’s Howell Living History Farm. Shearing is the process of cutting wool off a sheep.

“We’re getting rid of the wool. That’s going to be too much insulation for them during the summer, so it’s critical that we do it now before it warms up any more,” Watson said.

“It starts when they’re done being lamb at 1 year,” said Howell Living History Farm Assistant Manager Jeremy Mills.

That’s when the first fleece is taken off. Mills catches the sheep in the barn and generally lays her on her back for shearing. The wool’s cut in a specific order.

“You do the underside and the rear end first, then you do the neck, come down the one side you bring her up and do the far side of it and come up in one piece,” Mills said.

There are 22 sheep at Howell Living History Farm and another 13 lambs. The sheep are sheared once a year, their season starting late March through May. Some of the sheep can have as much as five inches of wool on them before they’re sheared.

“It doesn’t hurt her. If you don’t take it off when it gets to June or July, they’re suffering,” Mills said.

“The sheep only needs one inch of wool to carry it through the winter so all this extra wool is already baggage they don’t want to have,” Watson said.

“It would be really hot for the sheep because they wear a big coat made of wool,” said 7-year-old Dominic Portella.

More than 65,000 people visit Howell Farm each year to participate in living history programs like sheep shearing.

“It was cool,” said 8-year-old Alex Hart. “That they can get haircuts. I never knew that.”

“They see the entire process and that’s from sheep to shawl,” Watson said.

After the sheep’s sheared, you’re left with a fleece. It’s hand-cleaned. Things like straw are picked out — that process is called skirting. After it’s washed and dried, if it’s going to be used for yarn, it’s processed in a period drum carder. This ensures all the fibers are going in the same direction so the wool can be later spun into yarn that ultimately is transformed into a winter sweater or hat.

When asked what he’s going to think of when he sees a wool sweater, Portella said, “I’d buy it.”

“It helps us place a value on the resources that are available to us. It shows us the importance of managing those resources properly,” Watson said.

Howell Living History Farm plans to shear the rest of their flock the first weekend in May.