This season at my farmers' market stall, I've had a number of people comment on how brutally sheep are treated during shearing. They're very concerned that I use wool, are relieved that I don't sell fleeces, and ask about alternatives for fiber that is treated more humanely.
Three years ago, I applied to be a vendor at the PAWS-Walk, a local festival to benefit the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, one of our local dog and cat shelters. I was turned down. The reason was that I used wool in my handmade products, and they couldn't be sure that the sheep were treated humanely.
Now, I came to knitting in a roundabout way, starting out with training my dog to herd sheep. I've learned a lot in the almost 16 years since I started, and one of the things I've learned is that sheep are sensitive. They are prone to a number of diseases that can only be prevented by excellent care. The dog trainers at Ewe-Topia Herddog Training are incredibly protective of their sheep and ducks. Their sheep live well into their teens, far beyond the normal life expectancy of even the most pampered backyard pet.
Farmers raising sheep for their fleece (wool, and then yarn) will tell you how crucial it is to keep the sheep fantastically healthy and happy. A stressed sheep will not produce a fine fleece. Only the most contented, well-cared-for sheep will grow really great wool - just like us humans, whose hair will become dull and thin with stress.
In addition, only a really well-shorn fleece will be good to turn into yarn. Rough handling, stressed sheep, and abusive treatment will ruin an otherwise excellent fleece. Yes, the sheep need to be turned onto their backs. Often times they don't care to be shorn, and need to be wrestled into position. One of the most calming positions for a sheep is on her back, with her head resting at her side. Any decent video editor with an agenda can make this look brutal and abusive, but when you're there in the shearing shed, helping out and seeing it all in person, it looks much different: calm and controlled and reassuring.
So why shear sheep at all? Why should I give my backyard pet a haircut? A few years ago, Joe and Linda (Ewe-Topia founders and trainers) were given an unwanted pet sheep. She hadn't been shorn in years, and she could barely walk. She had a horrific skin infestation of mites and bacteria. She was so debilitated by disease that they weren't sure she would live. The reason? Her owner thought shearing would be cruel.
Modern sheep have been created by humans to produce wool. Through selective breeding, they now grow fleece year-round, like dogs with perpetually growing coats. They must be shorn, or they will develop horrible skin diseases and eventually die.
Any wool yarn that feels good in your hands can only have come from sheep that were treated well. If you're really concerned about the welfare of sheep, don't eat them. Lamb and mutton come from breeds of sheep completely different from breeds that produce wool.
So please be kind to sheep: buy good handknitting yarn made from wool! You can be sure that those sheep have good lives.
Pam Connolly, owner of Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting, is a hardworking single mom with an old-fashioned cottage industry.