With temperatures in the 70s and 80s in southeastern Pennsylvania this week, gardening has to take second place to a more critical spring ritual here at Hayefield: freeing “the boys” from their year’s worth of heavy fleece so they don’t pass out from the heat. It’s rather early this year: Last year, my notes say, I didn’t start until May 7. There’s always the worry that the weather might turn cold again, and once the fleece is off, you can’t very well stick it back on. It doesn’t look like cold, rainy weather is very likely any more, though, so we have to take our chances.
Shearing is not the most fun experience. It is accompanied by much spitting, kicking, and groaning, and the alpacas don’t behave all that well either. On the plus side, this is the fifth time we’ve been through this, and we’re all getting much better at it, so it’s really not all that bad. And even though they do spit some, it’s mostly “air spit,” not the really nasty, foul-smelling, green glop that they can bring up from their rumen if they so desire. I try to explain to them how lucky they are that I don’t haul them back to their birthplace an hour away, make them hang around for hours, subject them to the indignity of being laid down, tied up, and stretched out for “proper” shearing, then haul them back home. But then, who expects animals to be grateful for anything?
Above, you can see Duncan and Daniel in full, fluffy, fleecy glory as of about 3 weeks ago. I began the shearing process a few days ago, beginning with their heads and necks, using a pair of Fiskars fabric shears. The resulting look is somewhat eccentric, but it works. It took about 30 minutes total to get this stage done.
Shearing takes place in the small catch pen that’s part of their pasture. Sometimes I put one boy in the even smaller corner pen to work on him, but usually, I just tie the head of whoever I’m working on, or just let him stand free if he’s amenable. As I work, I try to drop the fleece in the tub to keep it clean, but I let the smaller bits drop.
In the second session, I work on getting off the “blanket”: the nicest fiber on their back and shoulders. Duncan was not thrilled, and Daniel was a little annoyed to start, but then he kushed (laid down) and started chewing his cud, so shearing him was pretty easy. I did as much as I could, but I couldn’t reach as much as I’d have liked, because he was resting on my foot. The resulting tu-tu effect is quite stunning, I think. This stage took maybe an hour total. At this point, I bagged up all the fleece I’d collected, and it filled a large trash bag to practically overflowing.
Last night’s half-hour session was about the worst one, because it required careful trimming around some very sensitive personal bits. The boys were not at all amused, and my attempts to be tidy with the fleece suffered as a result, but it doesn’t matter much, because these short, choppy bits aren’t worth much. The birds seem to like them for their nests, though.
Here’s Daniel modeling his pretty-much-finished look. (I still have their lower legs to do, and a little clean-up trimming as well, but they’re basically done.)
Duncan looks much tidier too. You know, I often say the two are inseparable – they had the same dad, were born 5 days apart, and have never been apart – but sometimes it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.
Here is a close-up shot of their blanket fleece. Duncan’s, on the left, is long but a bit coarse, while Daniel’s is shorter but more dense and incredibly soft. Handling the shorn fleece is almost like picking up air.
Last year, I sent all of the boys’ fleece that I’d collected to date and sent it to Gwen Steege and Carleen Perkins, my editors at Storey Publishing. Besides being serious gardeners themselves, they’re also keen on fiber arts, and they made me the incredible gift of two skeins of hand-spun yarn from part of the fleece. Mom crocheted it into a hat and scarf that I treasure.
So, that’s the story of shearing here at Hayefield. I’m not the only one who is relieved it’s about over. I think if you asked Duncan, he’d have something to say about it too!