Friday, November 18, 2011

Tales of Fiber: Part One

The following story may be viewed by some as gory. 
Do not read if you are uncomfortable with dead sheep and the women who are grateful for them.
Dedicated to Mary
It seems natural to work with fiber in Autumn and Winter...when the short days give a person more time in the house. Thanks to the amazing, dry, clear, warm weather we had right up until this week when it snowed....and also thanks to my dear friend, efforts with wool have been more ambitious this season than they ever have been before!

This story begins a few weeks ago when Mary and I were discussing the trip our ram lambs were scheduled to make to the processor. She had the clever idea to harvest the wool off her hides and invited me to join in the fun. Another friend, Gail, had told me how she washes the whole hide in an old washing machine, and then deals with the wool after it is dry. So that was the plan. Mary had a heated garage, and an old washer hooked up to cold water just outside. Once all the hides were gathered from the processor, we started in.

Little did I know...until Mary warned me...that the hides came back with legs, tails, and heads still attached. Think of those toddler blankies with little stuffed animal heads and legs that stores sell in the baby department...only bloody. I thanked God for small mercies, like the fact that none of my lamb customers wanted the tongues packaged up in their orders. Mary showed me how to take a utility knife and slice off the bony bits. These got thrown in a big garbage sack, which later had to be half unpacked when we realized we had filled it too full of sheep parts to lift.

After we had amputated the appendages from each hide, we carried it outside to the washing machine. One of the most satisfying moments of dealing with each fleece was watching the first run of water being wrung out of the washer from hose that was strategically angled toward the lilac hedge. I'm predicting some mighty fine blossoms next spring. It was also quite satisfying to see how the fleece couldn't be felted with agitation because it was still attached to the hide. All those perfectly aligned locks...the stuff of dreams!

With each hide, Mary and I streamlined our methods, until we got quite good at hacking, stuffing, stirring, wringing, and hauling wet fleeces. I theorized that there were probably never very many real witches in history....just a lot of women burned at the stake because someone caught a glimpse of them laughing hysterically over cauldrons filled with bloody sheep hides. A theory born out even further when Mary and I tried to move the garbage bags full of offal to the back of my pickup box. Bent double with the strain of tugging those bags, a wide bloody smear followed us across the garage floor and the graveled driveway. How we hefted those dripping black amoebas up into the truck is beyond me. The anticipation of being rid of them once and for all supplied the adrenaline, no doubt.

After a pause for a scrumptious lunch of dill pickle chicken soup and Asian delicacies provided by Mary...of course we still had appetites...why wouldn't we?...we returned to the garage to find a couple of the hides dry enough to shear. I will never again mentally criticize my shearer for the minor amounts of second cuts he inevitably produces in my wool crop each spring. Equipped with Mary's shearing machine, I proceeded to mutilate the first fleece I worked on. My shearer can remove fleece from a thrashing, shifting, roundness of live Shetland. I struggled to remove fleece from a perfectly flat, deathly still hide. With Mary's guidance, I improved slightly by the end of the first one. By then it was time to go home, though, so we postponed the rest until the next day.

When I returned the following afternoon, Mary cautioned me that the smell in the garage had become quite strong. Apparently it had sent her brawny son-in-law reeling from the open doorway. She wasn't exaggerating...but it is amazing what a fiber enthusiast will endure to add to her stash. After a short time, I became indifferent to the odor of rancid tallow. The shears, however, were not cooperating that day, so I ended up using sharp scissors on the next fleece. The second hide took longer to finish, but I was infinitely more sure of myself, and not as worried about loosing a finger. Since I didn't have much time, I only got one fleece off the hide. I took my remaining three fleeces home where I draped them over the steel clothes line, said a prayer for their safekeeping, and gave the dogs a growly warning not to even think about it.

Throughout this adventure, the back of my truck was filled with bags, buckets, and tubs of appendages from about 9 sheep. Quite the cargo. I had volunteered my dear husband to dispose of it all far, far away. Turned out he was quite busy that week, though. The gore was temporarily transferred to the back of Clancy's old work truck, where it sat for about a week before he got around to dealing it. Meanwhile, the dogs had all they could do to fend off the coyotes that were lured into the yard by the overpowering stench of decomposing carcasses. Each night they barked with all their might, and each day they took turns sleeping as close to Clancy's truck as possible. So close, but yet so far.

Though he had stated quite clearly that he didn't appreciate being my offal boy, Clancy eventually did make time to dump the grisly remains on the far corner of our property. Bless his optimistic heart. It took all of 24 hours for the first sheep head to show up in the yard...the darling prize of a very proud Pooja. Day by day, our dogs rescued what they could from the ravages of the coyotes, ravens, and foxes. Night by night they barked their claim to the loot. It took about a week to exhaust the supply of wool, jawbones, and hooves. There was obviously a great deal of competition. But at last, there was nothing left to retrieve from the remote corner of our field, and Clancy threw the last bone into the outdoor stove.

During this battle of wills between Clancy and the dogs...the gory nightmare that just never seemed to end for my poor husband...I was scissoring the fleece off the last three hides. How I wish I could have held those ramlings over winter so their staple lengths would have been closer to four or five inches. But I was determined to make the most of what I could get. So once I had all the fleece harvested, I began washing it in hot water. The dry breezy weather dried the wool out quickly, and soon I was rewarded with five bags of gorgeous wool.

To be continued...


Gail V said...

OMG, Sabrina,
I have done things like this, but not written endearingly well about it. Truthfully, I've cut the fleece off of about 5 hides, and think that I will not bother again! But the bags of offal, trailing on the driveway, I remember that...
Good story.

Becky Utecht said...

I've cut the wool off hides too, but I don't ever wash them down first. I just salt them down and let them dry, then I get out the hand shears and proceed as usual. We used to have to pick up the offal from the processor right after slaughter (in the summer), and that was REALLY stinky on the drive home. Thankfully Stan was always very prompt in getting the offal hauled over to the west 40. :-) I hope you enjoy all the luscious lamb's wool!

Sabrina Wille Erickson said...

Thanks so much Gail!

Mary not only encouraged me to harvest this lambs wool...she also has encouraged me to write more. So this post was a bit of an effort at that. :)

I have to admit, Becky, I don't think I would have wanted to touch those hides if they weren't already washed. They were REALLY bloody. And definitely something I have to make sure I have time for if I want to do it again. But I had so much fun learning the process with Mary. And I am looking forward to the wool. :)

Michelle said...

What a fascinating read! I must admit to being quite happy with ONLY words, though, and no photos. ;-)