It's a bit of a woolly situation!
A sheep’s fleece, or wool, is a highly valued commodity, as it is the most widely used animal fibre. It is used across the globe for multiple applications and products, with the most notable being used to make the clothes that we wear every day.
The Process of Shearing Sheep
Springtime is the time when farmers will shear their sheep, either before or after the sheep have given birth to lambs. Sheep breed during autumn, so that the lambs arrive in the springtime when pastures are at their best, providing a plentiful supply of green grass for the newborns.
A single sheep will produce roughly 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of fleece, or wool, each year. The wool is shorn off the sheep in one piece, with the shear cutting close to the skin of the sheep. A skilled shearer can usually shear between 160 and 180 sheep per day. The wool is then ‘skirted’ to remove any stained or discoloured wool.
The wool is then assessed by a wool classer for its quality, and then the wool is placed into bins in reference to its assessed quality. It is then baled and branded with the name of the property it belongs to. A wool bale can weigh between 110 kilograms (242.5 pounds) and 204 kilograms (450 pounds), and is usually made up of the wool of 30 to 40 sheep. The wool is then taken to auctions where it is sold. Prices will vary depending on the quality, fibre and purity of the wool.
Australia is the global leader in the production of wool, producing roughly 30 per cent of the world’s total amount of wool. The Australian wool industry is worth about 3 billion dollars a year, with roughly 97 per cent of it exported to China and Italy.
How is wool measured?
Sheep wool is measured in microns in the woollen fibres. A micron is the equivalent of one thousandth of a millimetre. The microns of the diameter of the wool fibre are measured, and its final count is determined by factors such as the breed of the sheep and the climate in which they live. For example, areas that have a high rainfall produce superfine and fine wool.
Ultrafine wool is less than 15 microns. Superfine wool is less than 18 microns.. Fine wool ranges from 18 to 20 microns, with medium wool between 20 to 22 microns. Strong wool is between 22 and 25 microns, while course wool is anything above 25 microns.
Different qualities of wool are used for different products. For example, the fashion industry uses ultrafine wool, while carpets are made from course wool.
Because of the high demand for premium quality wool from the fashion industry, farmers have started to pamper their flocks of sheep. The sheep are kept in sheds and are made to wear special coats to protect their woollen fleece from the elements. These sheep are also feed a special diet to produce the ultrafine wool. Some farmers even set up televisions or play music so that their sheep don’t become bored. This also creates background noise so the sheep aren’t frightened or stressed out by any other noises from outside the sheds.
While this type of extreme farming is a very expensive and labour-heavy form of farming, it does have its rewards. In 1995 in the Mallee region in Victoria, Australia, a 116 kilogram (255 pound) bale of wool was produced that had a fibre count of 13.8 (remember, ultrafine wool is anything with a micron count of 15 or less). It was sold to a Japanese menswear company for $1,194,000.
You can tell a sheep’s age by its teeth. At five years old, the sheep’s two middle teeth start to wear down.
The wool on sheep grows from follicles in the skin, similar to the way hair grows on humans.
Like cows, sheep have four compartments in their stomach that help process and break down their food.
An average person will eat 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of lamb a year.
Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated by humans, sometime around 10,000 BC.
Sheep products are used to manufacture tennis balls, insulation, paint, bone chine, bandage strips and even toothbrushes.
Female sheep are called ewes, baby sheep are called lambs, and male sheep are called rams. A group of sheep is called a flock.
If all the tiny woollen fibres were counted, a merino sheep produces up to 8850 kilometres (5499 miles) of wool per year, or roughly 24 kilometres (15 miles) per day.
In December 2002, New Zealander Justin Bell sheared 731 lambs in eight hours.
In February 2003, Australian Cartwright Terry sheared 466 ewes (female sheep) in eight hours.