ENTIAT — In our current consumer culture, most of us are far removed from the people involved in making the products we buy, whether its clothing, computers or even food. Yet modern culture still depends on the skills of many unheralded workers who employ time-worn techniques to bring products we buy to the marketplace.
Nowhere is this more evident than our lack of knowledge about the sheep shearers who “harvest” the wool used to make yarn for socks, sweaters, uniforms, jackets, blankets, caps and many more items of clothing. And here in North Central Washington, a dedicated few pursue a trade nearly as old as civilization itself.
Snowgrass Winery in the Entiat Valley uses sheep to mow its vineyard, and winery co-owner Susan Kidd uses wool sheared from the winery flock to make stuffed animals for sale. The winery will host its seventh annual “Wool Work for Wine” Fiber Arts Festival from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at the winery. Knitters, spinners and weavers from throughout the area will be on hand to offer their wares for sale, and there will be a wine tasting as well. The cost for the event is $10 for adults, and children will be admitted for free.
To acquire any skill, education matters. The Washington State Shearing School operated by Washington State University Extension in Moses Lake was started in 1977, and has trained over 500 shearers since.
“Our students come from all walks of life,” says Sarah Smith, a WSU regional animal science specialist and program coordinator. “Some come to learn how to shear their own flock, but most go on to become professional shearers.”
WSU’s five-day day beginner shearing school is in April, and costs between $200 and $250 (members of the Washington State Sheep Producers pay less). Sixteen students are trained to shear at the Grant County Fairgrounds in Moses Lake. A one-day advanced training course is also offered each year.
“It’s a tough, physical job,” Smith says. “I shear my own sheep. I call it ‘sheep yoga’ because that’s how I stay in shape.”
Smith notes that although sheep shearing was once considered a man’s job, many women are entering the profession now, such as MaryClaire Geyer, 27, who lives in the Olympia area, but also shears sheep in North Central Washington. ”I got some sheep and decided to shear them myself,” she recalls. “I pretty quickly realized I needed more training.” Geyer went to a shearing school in Northern California in 2017, and attended the WSU School in 2018.
From shearing her own sheep and those of her friends, she has now become a professional shearer, working mostly in the west side of the state, but also in the Okanogan area. “It takes a lot of time to learn your skill,” Geyer said. “And it’s incredibly hard on your body. But I really enjoy it. There’s lots of independence involved. I can decide where I want to work, and how much to do. I usually camp out during shearing season (normally spring through fall).” Geyer has sheared as many as 76 sheep in a single day, and also does other farm work during the year.
Wool production was once an industry in serious decline in the U.S. due to foreign competition and the development of synthetic fabrics after World War II. But thanks to recent interest in agricultural sustainability and locally made farm products, raising sheep is on the rise again, according to Smith. And an increase in sheep shearing has naturally followed.
Most American wool is now exported to China or other countries to be processed, but a few wool mills still exist in the U.S. And sheep are even being used in Northern California is remove excess vegetation around homes for fire protection.
And wool, perhaps the most versatile of all natural fibers, still depends on the skill of sheep shearers like Geyer, a new practitioner of an ancient craft.
Alan Moen is co-owner of Snowgrass Winery in the Entiat Valley.