What Do You Know About Wool?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Chile
SHEEP—thousands of them—stretch like a woolly blanket across the road ahead. Our car slows to a stop, and we wait expectantly as the mounted sheepherders swing into action. From the edge of the flock they whistle commands to the dogs, who react eagerly, expertly urging their charges off to one side of the road.
The flock becomes a massive moving carpet, bodies wedged compactly, some with forelegs pawing atop the backs of those ahead in a frantic effort to get away from the worrisome dogs. We inch ahead, and behind us the bodies flow back onto the road. Finally we are free, and, with a wave to the men on horseback, we continue our journey.
Although this sight is common on any road in Magallanes, Chile’s southernmost province, yet, like many others, we knew very little about these woolly creatures. How about you? What do you know about wool? Recently we learned some interesting things on visits to a sheep ranch.
The Corriedale—a “New” Breed
Sheep, we found, have changed over the years. The ones we saw on the road are of a breed that is just over a hundred years old—the Corriedale. It was named after the ranch in New Zealand where it was first produced by crossing a long-wool ram with a Merino ewe, then inbreeding the offspring. For that reason the Corriedale is called an interbred half-breed.
The desire of the breeders was to produce an animal with wool almost as fine as the Merino, but with better meat, and the ability to withstand a rigorous climate, as can the long-wool variety. Those qualities make the Corriedale an ideal breed for this part of the world. It has made itself right at home here in the cold and wind.
Great care is taken to maintain the good qualities in the breed. Fine rams for breeding are bought, used for three years, then sold to other ranches to prevent degeneration in the flock. Good ewes are used for lambing for four years and then slaughtered the fifth year. Even before that, any female showing defects is sent to the slaughterhouse.
We made arrangements with the foreman of one ranch to show us around. There he is now, standing by the gate. We are anxious to see how the wool is removed from the sheep.
The Shearing Shed
A mixture of smells and noises greet us as we hurry up the wooden steps to the shed. Inside, we have to observe for a moment to sort out all the activity. A man stands by a high table, piled with wool. He takes a piece, does something to it with his fingers, then lays it aside. A huge machine presses rolled-up fleeces into big square bundles. Beyond, at the far end of the shed, are the shearers. Young boys run from the shearers to the table with the fleeces.
As we near the group of shearers, the noise of the clippers intensifies. A fleece boy is trying to get the feel of a clipper left momentarily idle, but the powerful machine is too much for him, and it jerks in his hand like something alive. Through a row of small doors sheep are pushed from the pen outside, one at a time, to each of the shearers.
With amazing rapidity the men flip the sheep over on their back, run the clippers down the belly, up the inside of the legs, around the outside, and the leg wool dangles free. Now the neck wool, from head to back, is loosened. Then the back—several quick strokes and zip! off comes the fleece in one piece.
“Just like taking off a poncho,” laughs the foreman, as the sheep, naked and somewhat dazed, runs off to another pen. “Do you know,” he continues, “that a good shearer can do 250 sheep a day?”
“That’s amazing,” we acknowledge. “But tell us, what is the man over by the high table doing?”
“Oh, he’s classifying the wool. Come on into my office, and I’ll show you how that’s done.”
On the way, our attention is directed to the huge burlap-encased bales coming out of the giant press. “Each of those bales weighs about 300 kilos [660 pounds],” we are told. “From here they’ll be taken to the city for processing.”
A Closer Look at Wool
“Here,” explains our host, “are some samples of this year’s shearing. We separate the wool for baling into four types—bellies, fleeces, pieces (hunks broken away from the fleece), and locks.” A lock, it is explained, is a group of fibers clinging naturally together in the fleece.
The appearance of the lock surprises us. Only on the tip does it present the dirty-gray color we are used to seeing on the sheep. The rest is creamy yellow, slightly brilliant, with a decided wave.
“This lock is of very good quality,” observes the foreman. We notice that the wave is very short and close together. For comparison, an inferior lock is shown us. Its wave is longer and the individual fiber, called a staple, is not as strong.
“The classifier tests the strength of the staple by plucking it with his index finger,” explains the foreman. “With his expert sense of touch he can also determine the fineness of the staple and classify it as to how many hanks will make a pound. A hank is 560 yards of fiber, and the fineness of the Corriedale wool is such that 50 to 56 hanks are required to make a pound.”
“What makes the staples, or individual fibers, cling together in the lock?” we want to know.
“The undulations of the fibers together with a substance produced by the animal’s glands to lubricate and protect it are responsible. This substance, commonly called ‘wool grease,’ is very useful. When purified it becomes lanolin, the basis for special soaps, ointments and creams.”
“Have you ever wondered why woolen articles are warmer and more durable than many other materials?” we are asked. Without waiting for a reply the foreman opens a book and continues: “This magnified picture shows that the wool fiber has an outer layer of flat, overlapping cells, like the scales of a fish. This scaly surface causes the fibers to lock together firmly, producing a very break-resistant yarn. The locking of the scales and the undulations also trap air into the yarn, giving it a thermal quality.”
A dinner bell rings, and we are invited to join the work crew in the dining hall for a meal.
“Are there always this many people here?” we ask.
“No, the majority have come just for the shearing. However, a few of us are kept busy here all year. In the autumn we round up the sheep for dipping. This is accomplished by having the sheep swim through a long tank containing disinfectant that kills the sheep ticks. Also at this time of year the rams are put in with the ewes for twenty days for breeding. Then they are separated and taken to the winter pasture.
“In the spring the lambing keeps us busy. We often have to play the role of midwife, assisting at a difficult birth. Sometimes we find a dead ewe with her lamb bleating close by. Then we have to induce another ewe to take the orphan. One way to do this is to find a ewe that has just given birth and take its placenta and break it over the little orphan. Then the little one will be accepted by its new mother.
“Shearing is done in the summer so that the sheep can grow a new coat before cold weather sets in. Repairs and maintenance around the ranch keep us busy, too.”
The conversation now shifts, and we talk about transforming the wool into yarn. “Would you like to see a primitive method of spinning?” the foreman asks.
He nods to his wife, who has been listening. As she leaves the room, he explains: “My wife spins as a hobby, using wool gathered from bushes where passing sheep have deposited it. The dirty tips are pulled off, and it’s ready to use.”
The foreman’s wife reappears with a heap of fluffy wool. In one hand she holds a spindle—a stick about twelve inches long, slightly fatter in the center than on the ends—and it has a potato stuck on it. “That’s for weight,” she laughs. “When the spindle has enough yarn on it to weight it down, I’ll remove the potato.”
She takes a piece of wool and begins pulling at it, drawing out the fibers to the thickness she wants. She twists the piece and ties it to the spindle. Then, spindle in her lap, she continues the pulling and drawing. When she has about twelve inches drawn out she drops the spindle, giving it a flick with her fingers, and it spins like a top, tightly twisting the drawn-out fibers. She winds this onto the spindle, looping it on the end to hold it, and repeats the process. “That’s all there is to it,” she smiles. “And here’s what it looks like after I wash the yarn to get the grease out.”
The foreman takes the ball of soft, creamy-white yarn from his wife’s hand. “Notice that this yarn is not exactly regular,” he says. “It has little bumps along it. It is fine for making a nubby shawl or blanket or any article in which a homespun effect is desired. However, if a smooth, even yarn is needed, the wool must be carded and combed at a processing plant.”
But that is another story in itself, we learn, involving a number of ingenious machines. The foreman now must get back to the shed. So, as he excuses himself, we grasp his outstretched hand, saying: “Thank you very much. We certainly know a lot more about wool than we did when we came.”