Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Shearing day part 3

When we last left our heroes, they had all of the alpacas in a trailer (which they were pretty sure was light enough for their Subaru to pull), and were on their way to Polly’s at Fern Hill Ranch to shear.

We made it to Polly’s before the shearer Armando arrived, so we had time to beat some of the dirt out of the alpaca’s fleeces before shearing began. We use a special tool which consists of a wire attached to a handle. When you flick the handle against a fleecy alpaca, the dust fluffs out. It is better to get the dirt out of the fleeces by beating or by blowing with a shop-vac than it is to shear a dirty alpaca. The dirt is hard to remove from the fleece after shearing, and a dirty fleece makes the electric shears duller.

Once Armando and his two friends arrived and set up, we began shearing with El Barto, our little white male. When we shear, we go from lightest to darkest so if a little fiber ends up being mixed in to a fleece, it’s a lighter shade instead of a darker shade. Also, by doing them in this order, none of the fleece colors are drastically different.

Armando’s two friends, Conception and José, took hold of the alpaca, one in front and one in back, and Armando began shearing by taking off the blanket which lies across the alpaca’s back and flanks. This is prime fiber and is bagged and marked “firsts” or “blanket.” This is the best fiber on the animal and is usually reserved for spinning into yarn or making into fine, soft garments. Then Armando takes off the neck fiber which is bagged as “seconds.” Seconds are usually felted, but the seconds of some animals make fine yarn as well. Finally, he removes the leg and belly hair and any other patches which are bagged as “thirds.” In general, thirds are not much good except for compost or stuffing, but some thirds make good felt.

It took Armando and his friends about fifteen minutes to shear each alpaca, clean up the fiber that had fallen on the floor, and prepare for the next animal. Our jobs were to catch the fleece as it came off of the animals and bag and label it, vacuum/sweep up loose hair, and ferry animals between the pens and the garage where we were shearing.

This was the first time El Barto has been shorn, and he behaved quite well. He was worried, but he didn’t make any sound, nor did he try to kick at the workers, which was my biggest fear. Once his fiber was off, he looked quite ridiculous. Alpacas lose about 2/3 of their volume when they are shorn, and are reduced in appearance to long-necked drowned rats. Adding to Barto’s ridiculousness was the fact that Armando left sideburns and a little goatee of a beard on him. He reminds me now of the Jaberwocky that the Muppets had on their show once.

Once we got the routine down, the shearing went remarkably smoothly. The animals were well-behaved with a few exceptions. Dawn, our nine-year-old import, screamed the entire time she was being shorn. She didn’t kick, bite, or spit, as we had feared, but she never stopped her glass-shattering, shrill scream of indignant protest. It was the same noise she made when we picked her up from her former ranch after the ranch hands had taken her baby from her, thrown him in the trailer, and then tried to throw a towel over her head. We thought we had bought a hellion at that point, but Dawn is actually quite sweet. We’ll bring earplugs the next time we shear her, though.

Consuella and Milhouse were challenges, too. We decided to “tip” Milhouse’s baby fleece because the tips catch dirt and sticks, etc., and often end up a lighter color than the baby’s true color. This is controversial in the show circuit, but since we don’t know if we’ll show Milhouse or not, we decided to cut the tips off of his fleece to ease next year’s shearing.

In order to shear Milhouse, though, we needed to bring Consuella into the garage as well. I held Consuella back as Armando and company tipped Milhouse—a process similar in technique to trimming a poodle, although the design is thankfully different! Consuella did not like the men handling her baby, and Milhouse wiggled like a child getting a shot, but he was shorn with little effort. Consuella was relatively easy to shear, too, although hanging on to Milhouse was challenging.

When we finally arrived at the time to shearing Polly’s big studs, Armando and his friends would lay the animal on his side so he wouldn’t thrash around. The big males are sometimes harder to shear because they are so much stronger than the females that, given even a little leverage, they can make it very difficult to shear them. Laying them down makes it much easier on all involved, although the animals don’t like it much.

After five hours of shearing without a break, we were done, and ready for a nice meal…but first we had to re-load the alpacas and put them back into their own barn. However, if you remember from the last installment, we made two original trips because Cabernet hated the little boys. We fixed the problem by putting everyone into the trailer except Tony, who we lifted into the back of my mother’s Volvo station wagon! I’m sure she got a funny look or two from people she passed on the highway.

So, that’s shearing day. A couple days later, I picked El Barto’s fleece for a local fleece show. This involves lots of leaning over a table and pulling tiny bits of debris out of sticky fleece. I’m pleased with Bart’s fleece—it is crimpy and very soft. I am also pleased with Tony’s fleece—we thought he was a bay black, but it looks like the baby tips are the only brown on him…the rest of him is true black, and soft with some crimp developing! He, unlike Bart, is far handsomer for his haircut.

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