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It takes just four minutes for an expert to shear a sheep, but veterinary and animal science students learn from experience that it takes a full year of close attention to ensure that the fleece is of high quality.
When the students work with the 40 or so Dorset sheep at Hadley Farm, they must take care to keep the wool clean, explains livestock barn manager Alice Newth. While they’re feeding the sheep and cleaning the barns they ensure that no hay, sawdust, burrs, manure, or other impurity lodges itself deep in the dense wool.
“They also learn to handle the sheep so the wool is not compromised,” says Newth. “You never want to grab a sheep by the wool and damage it. You want to leave the entire fleece intact, so it has the greatest value.”
Every spring, a shearer visits the barn and students prepare the sheep they’ve raised for his electric shears. Once the sheep are shorn, students gather the fleeces and bring them to a skirting table, where they pick out foreign matter and discard short, coarse, or dirty pieces.
After the wool is washed, it is combined with wool from other Massachusetts sheep and then spun and woven in Uxbridge, Mass. The yarn is neither bleached nor dyed; the white wool from UMass sheep woven with gray wool from other farms yields handsome gray-and-white plaid EweMass blankets. Students sell the blankets and yarn to benefit the livestock program in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences and the Center for Agriculture.
The process teaches students how to create and market a farm product. Says Newth. “It’s better than a t-shirt, and it lasts longer.”
To purchase EweMass blankets, sheepskin, or wool, contact Alice Newth at 413-549-3258.