Returning to images from The British Museum again, today I’ve chosen a very humble object but one that was essential throughout the history of agriculture right up until the present day. And one that has particular interest to me as a sheep keeper and fibre artist.
These shears are around 2,000 years old and are from Hertfordshire, England. They look remarkably similar to the hand shears I use for dagging (clipping the tail wool) my own sheep. My oldest pair, now relegated to gardening duties are in about the same condition too!!
I now shear my sheep with an electric shearing machine. But for the first few years that I sheared my own sheep, I blade sheared them using the tool of shearers throughout the centuries; effective, well designed and standing the test of time. A good blade shearer is not much slower than one using a machine and shearing competitions often still have a blade category. Although no one would shear large flocks of sheep professionally this way now, it’s good to know that shearers continue to keep up these hand skills.
Before sheep were domesticated, they shed their wool naturally in late spring and summer leaving clumps of it dotted around the countryside for humans to gather and use for clothing. Over the millennia than humans have domesticated animals for their own use, they selectively bred sheep to retain the wool which meant it could be gathered at will at one time – shearing. Almost all modern sheep have lost the ability to shed their wool although most breeds fleece will “rise” in late spring where the new growth pushes through and indicates where and when the sheep need shearing. Primitive breeds of sheep can still lose their fleece. Because I keep a couple of more primitive breeds, some of my own sheep do this to an extent although they need a helping hand to get rid of the last bits of felted wool from their bodies. Because I shear the best wool from my sheep in winter, the spring growth is short and poor quality and I utilise the sheep’s natural ability to shed it to save me work by picking the optimum time to clear off this wool. It has no value to me and has served it purpose to keep the sheep warm since moving back outside after being housed in the depths of winter and so gets discarded.
This is generally a quick process compared to the laborious clipping of the quality fleeces. Often I will use a combination of electric clippers and my low-tech, traditional blades to achieve this. It’s nice to know I’m following in the footsteps of my sheep-farming ancestors across the centuries when I’m working.