Three bags full: The art of being "Wool Help"
by Heidi R. Cousins
I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I agreed to work with a shearing crew as their “wool-help.”
“You can do it,” my friend reassured me.
“But I’ve never worked with sheep before!” I told him.
“You won’t be working with the sheep; you’ll tie fleeces and stomp them.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by “stomp them,” so I asked and he explained that “stomping” is the way to fill a wool sack by jumping into the big sack and stomping as many fleeces as possible into it. Then, he told me, the sack is sewn up tightly and the process is started all over with another.
Puzzled over his explanation, I asked, “How do you jump inside a bag when it’s lying on the ground?”
He started to grin and I knew I wasn’t understanding something right, but he continued. “The rancher builds a stand for the sack and hangs it up.” Feeling somewhat foolish, I sheepishly said, “Oh, yeah; how else would it be done?” He then told me that was the “old way” of stomping and that today’s new technology has provided a motorized “stomper.”
Learning something new has always been very exciting to me, so I soon found myself travelling with a crew of seven shearers and one other wool-helper. The fact that I was the ONLY woman and in my mid-40s did not seem to bother the crew, as long as I did my job efficiently.
There are only a few ranchers that have shearing sheds on their farms, so the shearing crews use a “shearing plant.” The plant is a shack built on wheels that supplies the hook-ups for electric shears and support equipment for each shearer. The shearing is done inside this shack. These shacks on wheels are set up wherever the sheep are. It may be in a pasture miles away from the ranch, or a barnyard, or a corral, or even inside a large shed. If the rancher has a shearing shed or barn, everybody works inside that, including the wool help.
When a shearing plant is set up, a large tarp is hooked up underneath the plant where trap doors for the fleeces are located, so when the fleeces drop out, they remain clean. Another tarp is placed between the plant and the stomper and the wool help has to keep that area clean by sweeping tags and bellies aside for separate stomping at the end of the each day. (Tags and bellies are the soiled parts of a fleece that the shearer separates before shearing the sheep, to keep the fleece as clean as possible.) Some ranchers like the bellies and tags to be separate and some like them kept with the fleeces. Some ranchers like the fleeces tied and some don’t, so the wool help has to make sure of their preferences before shearing begins.
Grading the wool before it is stomped has become very popular with ranchers. Therefore, some ranchers have “wool graders” come and grade their wool on location. Even though it was not a requirement for wool help to know how to grade at the time I was doing the job, I had taken the beginner’s course that the American Wool Council offered and found it was very helpful to identify the grade of fleeces that I was working with.
On the earlier small jobs that I worked on I learned my new trade as wool-help. “Tying” a fleece meant to lay a measured, cut string over my boots and gather the fleece over the string. Then I would cross the string and flip the fleece over and tie a knot. That took practice; I had to be quick with this procedure, because another fleece would tumble down from the trap door of the plant and get in my way.
The stomper has to be gassed up and oiled prior to running it. Before a large burlap sack is placed inside the drum-like body of the stomper, you have to tie “ears” on the bottom of the sacks. That is done for easier handling of the sacks, because a full bag can weigh 250 pounds and usually even more.
The open end of the bag has to be folded over a metal ring that fits in a groove at the top end of the drum-like body that opens like a coffin. It is closed securely with the sack inside and the hydraulic operated stomping device pushes three to four fleeces at a time into the sack. A sack holds 30 to 33 fleeces.
When full, a sling stitch is used to sew the sack up. This can be an arduous job for a beginner because having too many fleeces in the sack make it almost impossible to sew up; not enough fleeces in the sack make the sack too sloppy and limp.
There are elements that can turn a fairly smooth job into a disaster for wool help. One of them is the wind. When it blows, the fleeces blow around and the tags and bellies scatter from 10 to 100 yards on the surrounding ground, fences, and buildings. Or, the stomper can break down. When that happens, fleeces pile up and the shearers have to slow down or even stop. (That is unthinkable, because shearers get paid by how many sheep they shear per day.)
But, it does happen, and everything possible happened to me when I was doing the job. The wind blew at times and the stomper quit several times during the season. Often, strings broke while I was trying to sew the bags up, and I cut one of my hands badly one time while fixing the stomper.
In all we travelled from the foothills of the the Rocky Mountains to the northeastern prairies. We did jobs from 400 to 4,000 sheep.
Wool help is a hard and demanding job, and just as important as the shearing itself. It is not considered a “woman’s job.” However, I made it through the season from February to the end of May and now look at sheep and wool in a new and different way.