The Sheep Shearing Festival

Once a year on the May long weekend, the Canada Agriculture Museum puts on its Sheep Shearing Festival. It is held on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the Victoria Day weekend. After my excursion to the see the Flotilla on Dows Lake, one of the signature events of the Tulip Festival, I took a slow walk on the western shores of Dows Lake past a serene nature area towards the Canada Agriculture Museum. As you ascend up a small hill from Dows Lake towards the museum, you get a beautiful view of downtown and the eastern part of Ottawa and it’s a great location for a bike ride or a stroll.

Approaching the Canada Agriculture Museum from the east you first see extensive ornamental gardens that at this time featured a variety of spring flowers and entire rows of blooming lilacs. The Sheep Shearing Festival was held in one of the main buildings and I made myself comfortable in the first row of seating right next to the stage.

It was about 10 minutes before the next round of sheep shearing which takes place every half hour during the May long weekend. The announcer introduced me to a man called Dave, one of the herdspersons at the Canada Agriculture Museum who looks after the various animals, e.g. beef cows, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and rabbits. He explained to me that the Canada Agriculture Museum is a working farm and part of the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Its mandate is to teach agriculture awareness, particularly to children who have never even been on a farm.

Dave went on to explain that the beef cattle raised at the Museum are sold for reproduction and as meat. Milk from the Museum is also sold on the market and the income from these various activities helps to offset the cost of running the museum. Dave mentioned that at Easter about 12,000 people attend their special events which include an Easter egg hunt as well as a display of Easter bunnies.

There is no doubt that Dave is an expert in agriculture: in addition to working as a herdsperson for the Museum he also runs his own farm: some time ago he converted a very labour-intensive dairy farm into a less demanding beef farm, located about 20 minutes south of Ottawa. After this interesting introduction to the world of farming, the sheep shearing demonstration was just about to get underway.

The announcer asked the crowd, many of whom consisted of families with young children, what the purpose is of shearing sheep. A variety of interesting responses came forth, particularly from the young members in the crowd: “because the sheep get too hot”, “because we need sweaters”, finally someone said that sheep get sheared because we need their wool. Ross, a tough-looking but gentle professional sheep shearer came up on the stage, accompanied by an initially reluctant animal companion: a very woolly looking grown-up female sheep whose body posture indicated that she wasn’t at all happy about being on this stage.
With the experienced grip of a professional shearer, Ross grabbed the animal by its legs, turned it around and sat the animal down on its rear end, supported against his lower legs. What I found amazing was that the sheep, that had originally been battling him and didn’t want to come on stage, turned into a totally docile and compliant animal, once it was sitting on its rear end, with its front legs up in the air.

Ross and his woolly friend were soon ready for their demonstration. The announcer explained that in addition to the haircut, the sheep also receives a vaccination, an anti-parasite treatment as well as a manicure and pedicure during this process. Sure enough, Ross pulled out heavy duty clippers and the sheep’s toe nail clippings were soon flying into the first row of the audience. Then the electric shearer came out and Ross started shearing the animal from the neck down. The announcer asked the crowd how long they estimated it would take to shear the sheep. A variety of responses came back, but the correct answer was 4 minutes. 4 minutes to shear an entire sheep!

Based on Ross’s many years of experience, the shearing progressed smoothly from the neck to the sides, the back and the belly, and finally the entire sheep’s fleece came off in one big fluffy piece. The announcer explained that the entire fleece weighs about 4 to 5 pounds and asked the audience to estimate the dollar value of a fleece. Answers shot out, $5, $10, even $60 for a fleece, but the correct answer is C$1.50. I could not believe it when I heard it, that an entire fleece would be worth less than $2! We found out that sheep are raised primarily for their meat, and that wool is simply a by-product that doesn’t generate any significant revenue. Then the announcer invited the audience to feel the fleece and she explained that the sheep’s coat feels a little greasy due to its lanolin content, a natural skin lubricant, also often used in hand creams.

Well, the sheep shearing demonstration was over, but I continued into the adjacent rooms and I happened upon a group of women who were sitting around the room, knitting, and displaying a whole assortment of home-knit sweaters, vests, gloves, socks and other garments. Wendy Steinbach from the Ottawa Knitting Guild explained to me that their organization has about 120 members (one of whom is male), and that they meet once a month to knit as a group and to discuss various knitting projects. The ladies were using a variety of materials, different strengths of wool, cotton yarn and one knitter even used cut-up strips of plastic bags to knit! Another lady explained that she pulls out her knitting when she is stuck in a traffic jam. Obviously knitting has tremendous therapeutic benefits if it is able to calm you down in a traffic jam .

We then continued to talk about all of our first knitting projects: the “boyfriend sweater”. Even I, who’s got absolutely no talent or patience for crafts, have knitted such a garment for a long forgotten significant other when I was 16 back home in Austria. Apparently knitting a sweater for your first love is a time-honoured ritual even on the other side of the globe!

Of course when I first learned to knit I learned the technical terminology in my native language, German, so I inquired what it means when you open up a finished garment to unravel the wool and undo your work. The ladies explained that the activity of undoing your hard work has a number of names: some call it “frogging”, others call it “tinking” (“to tink” is the reverse of “to knit”, hence the connection).

Dale, one of the ladies from the Ottawa Knitting Guild and Guide at the Canada Agriculture Museum, demonstrated the spinning process and she showed me how to use a “drop spindle”. This manual process spins the wools without the use of a spinning wheel and Dale demonstrated that you can create a one-ply ball of wool, or you can even intertwine two threads and spin the thread in the opposite direction. She then showed me a pair of knitted mittens that had been washed in very hot water, and the wool’s fibers had become intertwined, almost like boiled wool, a material that apparently has amazing cold-insulation capacity.

In the next room I met Karen Riches, who is a full-time “wool artist”. Karen is an expert in all the disciplines of wool handling: spinning, dyeing, weaving, knitting and felting. What makes her work really unique is that she doesn’t only work with conventional materials such as sheep’s wool or cotton yarn. She actually uses dog hair to produce wool which she then weaves or knits into jackets or other garments. She said many of her clients comb their dogs and give her bags full of the soft fine hair that comes from their dogs’ belly. She then turns these fine fibers into spun wool that she processes into a final garment.

Karen had set up a loom on which she was weaving an intricately patterned scarf made of silk threads. She explained that her current project involves 508 threads, and it takes her about 40 hours of preparation to set up the threads on the loom while the actual production of the scarf would take about 20 hours. Altogether with one set of threads she is able to produce 7 different items, all of which surprisingly end up having different colours and patterns. When I inquired about the price of one of these scarves Karen said that they run at about $150 which I thought was not surprising, considering the tremendous effort and labour involved.

Karen mentioned that she has 20 years of spinning experience and 18 years of weaving and that she participates in a studio tour called “Crown & Pumpkin” during Thanksgiving Weekend. I was astounded at her skills and the beautiful scarves and garments that she creates. For someone like me who has very little dexterity, patience or talent in terms of manual crafts, I always admire people who are able to create such beautiful items with their own hands.