FIBERuary Day 9 Aaron Loux – Shearer, Sheep Breeder
Learning to shear sheep
Living in a culture that has become removed from its agricultural roots, how does anyone get started in sheep shearing? Some say it’s a calling, which I would not disagree with. But even though I have been a professional shearer for my entire working life, I still find myself explaining exactly what it is I do to ordinary citizens. I can’t say simply, “I’m a shearer”, as perhaps I’d be able to say as an introduction in a place like New Zealand. People who are connected to the sheep world in one way or another, understand the importance of getting the wool from the sheep’s body to the processing stages. These people probably see shearing as an important piece of the equation. Yet, they may not grasp the difficulty of the learning process.
I’ve heard it said that it takes a beginner shearer 1,000 sheep to “get the hang of it”, and 10,000 sheep to “be experienced”. Although that sounds daunting to someone trying to learn, I’d even argue those figures are on the low end. There are so many variables to learning, in regards to the learners’ aptitude, the kind of experience available, access to good training, and so on. The challenge of teaching the next generation of shearers is a continuous problem for the sheep industry. Furthermore, most who attempt learning will quit before reaching any of those milestones. As evidence of this, consider that a large number of sheep in the USA are shorn by migrant foreigners. Though much of learning to shear comes down to experience, it is only good quality experience that makes a good shearer. You can practice doing something the wrong way ad nauseum, but you may still be doing it the wrong way. Since shearing is generally piece work, efficiency becomes important. The more efficient you are, the more sheep you’ll shear, with less stress on the sheep. As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect”. I’d argue that it is more like, “perfect practice makes perfect”.
As a 16 year old beginning shearer, I was fortunate enough to start with a few advantages. First, my family had been raising sheep my entire life. Eager to learn every aspect of the family tradition, I started shearing our sheep at about the time I learned to tie my shoes. I was comfortable handling sheep, and knew a few basics of shearing. I watched other shearers at every opportunity, and knew it was something that interested me. “All” I had left to do was learn the technique. Or as a shearer would say, the pattern. But it is a technique which proved to be much more difficult than I realized. Though shearing is sometimes thought of like riding a bike, where once you’ve got it you’re all set, it is actually much more in depth. It takes enormous dedication, and the humility to realize it is a lifelong learning pursuit. Another advantage I had as a youngster was that I already had a large network of sheep friends who were willing to let me practice on their flocks. At 16 I was quite stubborn, and when I picked up my handpiece for the first time, I knew I would never let myself quit.
Parts of my training were typical of any beginner. I went to shearing schools, watched videos, talked to experienced shearers, and never turned down opportunities to learn. When I realized I wanted to make it a full time job, I took my training more seriously. I went to New Zealand for a few months, where I sheared with some of the top shearers. A good friend I made in New Zealand went on to become a world record holder. I also made a few other long distance shearing trips in between jobs that were close to home. Besides the shearing skill needed, one of the hardest things is coming to terms with the lifestyle. Even if you don’t travel abroad, and decide to shear locally, the sheep population is very spread out. As a shearer, you learn to have a nomadic lifestyle. One season I looked back and realized that in a period of nine days, I had eight different sleeping arrangements. None of which were my own bed.
I have been approached by people who think they want to learn. I would love to be part of someone’s training, yet I am cautious. I need to give them realistic expectations. You will not learn in a day. Or a weekend, or a season. The equipment is expensive. Building clientele takes years. It takes several teachers to learn. Scheduling jobs can become a nightmare, since farmers’ management practices vary. The goal is to spend more time shearing and less time driving, but that does not always work. Being organized, then, is essential. Next to skill, reputation is the biggest asset. So, if you are too eager at the beginning, taking on jobs that are too big or difficult for your skill level, you risk damaging your reputation before you’ve even started.
After raising these points, you may be asking, “is trying to learn worth it?” For me, unequivocally yes. I cannot see myself doing anything else. There have been plenty of unenjoyable days; sore backs, misbehaved sheep, etc. But it’s good honest work, you can’t fake it. Whether your boss for the day has one sheep or thousands, they are appreciative of a job well done. There’s a reason they choose to hire a specialist. Maybe it’s all I know, or maybe I’m still like the stubborn 16 year old. Either way, it has been an incredible journey, and I have never found myself looking forward to retirement.
> Aaron Loux is a sheep enthusiast whose specialty is shearing. To book services, call or email. 413 230 8607. firstname.lastname@example.org