I have a real love/hate relationship with shearing!
On the one hand shearing is the long awaited wool harvest : it’s so gratifying and exciting to shear one of your own sheep, knowing that the wool will be transformed into a garment.
On the other hand, shearing fills me with dread! Spinners who have never sheared a sheep don’t understand how difficult it can be. First the electric shears weigh over 2 ½ pounds ... and they vibrate quite a bit when in use. But that’s not the worst of it. The standard sheep combs/blades are sharp and “deadly” : it’s so very easy to cut your sheep. Then there’s the fact that ouessant sheep are more difficult to immobilize than a larger sheep ... well it’s a recipe for disaster!
You see, one of the tricks to shearing is holding the sheep in such a way that it “relaxes” and doesn’t move : if you hold the sheep in certain positions, they will calmly sit there and let you get on with it ...otherwise they will struggle and thrash around, making it even easier to cut them with the shears. Unfortunately, due to their small size, it’s much more difficult to immobilize ouessant sheep : imagine trying to shear an eel!! In fact a number of shearers in France charge almost 3 times more to shear a small ouessant than a standard sized sheep!
So what’s a shepherd to do???
First, I’ve had to modify how I hold my sheep. In order to get them into a better position, I sit on a small stool : this puts me closer to the ground, protects my back, and makes holding the sheep much easier (both for me and the sheep!). This has been a great help ... but it doesn’t solve the problems with the electric sheep shears!
This took a bit of research, but it’s all about the combs!
Let me explain. The head of electric sheep shears are make up of a comb and cutting blade. The comb does not move : it has teeth which direct the wool towards the cutting blade. The blade fits on top of the comb and moves back and forth, cutting the wool. The standard wool comb has 13 teeth. Most people (even sales people at farm stores!) will tell you that there’s just one comb used for shearing sheep. This is just not the case : if you check out the Heiniger catalogue, for example, you will find that they offer over 30 different combs for shearing sheep. Granted, the vast majority of these are 13-tooth combs. But there are some with only 9 teeth and a few with more than 13 teeth.
The thing is, for a professional shearer, speed is important. Generally speaking the shearer can work faster with a 13-tooth comb : remember that shearers like working fast as they are paid by the animal. The only problem is that the added speed of the 13-tooth comb has one pretty nasty downside : not only can the wool be quickly sheared, but the sheep’s skin can be quickly cut too. Of course most experienced shearers don’t make too many nicks. But of course, most professional shearers have never had to shear an eel ... urr I mean ouessant sheep!
But here’s the good news for all of us not so professional shearers who don’t want to nick and shred are dear little sheep : if you switch to a comb with more teeth you will greatly reduce the possibility of nicking and cutting your sheep when you shear them!
The two combs that have been recommended to me are the “mohair” comb, a 17-tooth comb designed especially for mohair goats ; and the Heiniger “shattle”, a 25-tooth comb that can be used on a number of different animals and is often used as a “show comb” for sheep. The closer together the teeth are the less chance you have of cutting your sheep. But there is a down-side : as you go from 13 to 17 to 25 teeth ... it takes longer to shear your sheep. Of course this isn’t an option for a professional shearer : they want to get the sheep done in 5 minutes ... NOT in 25 or 30. Note that all of these combs use the same standard cutting blade. It’s just the comb (or cutting plate, if you will) that changes.
I went ahead and purchased the Heiniger “Shattle” and “Mohair” combs at Schlumberger’s in France. They have great prices and great service.
In the weeks that come I’ll report back and let you know how it goes and which combs work best for shearing an eel!