As the spring days get warmer, it gets closer to time for the shearing of sheep.
It is important to keep sheep shorn in time for summer--and any time their wool grows too large--as wool will continually grow and can become heavy, soiled and unhealthy otherwise.
It is generally advised that sheep be shorn in March and April, as this will help them feel more comfortable as it gets warmer, also because most ewes will lamb in the late spring and early summer, so shearing them at least a month beforehand will place less stress on the expectant mothers.
Shearing is often done with electronic clippers these days, but manual shears are still in use by those who prefer to work without power cords. Neither method alters the quality of the wool though some sheep owners prefer to spare the ears of their flock from a whirring clipper motor.
Popular methods of shearing include trimming along the backbone and cutting down each side to the belly to end up with two halves of a fleece, or starting at the belly (with the sheep on its back) and shearing up to the spine, ending up with one whole fleece. In either case, a shear-er wants to make sure the wool remains intact and also to support the wool as it comes off, because a sheep's skin can actually tear under the weight of unsupported fleece.
Once shorn off, a fleece is simple but tedious to clean, as high-impact methods will often damage the wool. After removing large debris by hand, the fleece should be soaked in warm (140-degree-ish) water for around 10 minutes. Then soak the fleece in warm, soapy water for 15 to 20 minutes, being careful to not let the temperature drop, as the grease and dirt would simply re-attach to the wool. Then the fleece should be rinsed in warm water for 10 minutes, repeating the rinse step until the water runs clear. If the wool is excessively dirty, the wash step may need to be repeated, as well. When clean, the fleece should be laid out to air dry in a clean, sunny place.
Once cleaned, the wool can be spun or pressed into fabric useful for making all manner of clothing and textiles. Though clean, unprocessed wool can also be sold to a wool mill, but there are very few in the Southwest Washington area.
For those curious about sheep and wool resources in Washington, visit www.washingtonwool.net to find out more about available resources and programs.