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Tartan Ferret

Wool Handling


This is extracted from Edward Harrison's 1939 article on Cheviot wool.

 Washing the sheep in a river prior to shearing.

Shearing on the open hillside.

The shearing of the sheep - or " the clipping " as it is always called - takes place towards the end of June or the beginning of July, according to climatic and seasonal conditions. The exact date at any farm is usually fixed by arrangement with neighbouring farmers, as the shepherds of each may assist the other at this function, which indeed is the most important of the year in a pastoral district.

It is a day of strenuous work for all, not without its festive side; the bleating of sheep mingles with the barking of dogs, and above the din, the occasional cry of a shepherd. There are alarms and excursions as when a sheep bolts or a dispute arises amongst the dogs, of whom there are probably about four pairs present; in the latter case their masters' attention is diverted from their immediate task and the matter settled with sticks and shouts.

Although the work starts at an early hour, the sun is usually low on the horizon before the last sheep is shorn and the last fleece packed. There have, it is true, been breaks for necessary refreshment, and the interpretation of " necessary " depends on the host's hospitable nature and his ideas of what is necessary and fitting; and on this, too, depends the trim in which, after a cheery parting, the neighbouring shepherds finally call off their dogs and start on the long tramp home.

A fine set of men these Scottish " herds," and their intelligence is matched by the wonderful dogs they have trained to assist them in their work. To see these dogs working at their daily round or at sheep dog trials is a revelation. Their wonderful patience with a refractory, frightened, or stupid sheep is a marvel of skill and restraint - an object lesson to humanity. To return to our wool: this is already packed, unless its ultimate destination is still undecided, in which case it will be built into a neat pile in a shed or barn, each fleece carefully rolled up with the clipped side exposed. Home-grown wool is almost invariably packed into sheets of a more or less standard size, say, 9 ft. by 5 ft., except where there are difficulties in transport, such as in the Highlands and Islands, where it has sometimes to be conveyed in rowing boats to the waiting steamer; under these conditions it is packed in long bags of approximately half the size of a sheet.

Loading bales of wool in the 1930s

Packing is all done by hand, or to be more correct, by hand and foot. The sheet is suspended by ropes from a crossbar or hooks. One or more men throw the fleeces into the sheet, while another standing in it, tramps them down. There is a certain art in this, and a well-packed sheet gladdens the eye of an expert. Dominion or Overseas wool is usually packed in square-ended bales under hydraulic or other pressure, and therefore occupies less space, weight for weight - an important matter in sea transport. The ordinary farmer's clip of Cheviot Wool contains a proportion of about a fifth of hogs or yearling sheep, shorn for the first time. This wool runs a little finer than that of the older sheep, and, if sold separately, brings a slightly higher price. If the clip is sold as a whole, the proportion of hogs is an element in adjusting the price. A large proportion of the Cheviot Wool is clipped in the washed state - that is to say, about a week or ten days before shearing the sheep are put through a pond or dammed-up burn, and thereby most of the natural grease and grit that adheres to the wool are removed. When this is not done, the wool is sold as unwashed or greasy at a correspondingly lower price level.


Sorting the wool.



The word C ARD requires more explanation, for its connection with plain English is remote. In carding all the wool is used. There is no removal of long or short fibres. The wool is carefully and methodically tangled as might be said, though minor tangles are all removed Cardingin so doing. The wool is carefully scraped between two flat hard boards covered with strong wire teeth embedded in leather and called Cards, until all the fibres are thoroughly blended into an equally dense mass.

This process is now replaced mechanically by rotary machinery, the result is that in the combed yarn the wool lies more or less like the wires in a big electric cable, giving an even, smooth thread, whereas the carded wool is tangled and confusedly mixed in all directions. This fundamental difference of structure runs right through the resultant cloths, affecting their appearance, their lustre, their wearing properties, their range of weights, their touch, their actual warmth, their shrinking and felting, influencing the qualities of wools used for each. The two processes affect the whole industrial organisation, being, in fact, the reason for the great difference between the Scottish Woollen Trade on one side and the English Worsted Trade on the other - a difference penetrating deeply into the social and national characteristics of the two peoples.

A pair of cards










Woman shearing sheep








Wool sorting in 1933







Woolpackers in the open air.










Pair of cards









Tangled wool fibres before carding.









Wool fibres after being carded.



© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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