The Shearer’s Daughter
Written onFebruary 09 , 2016
At just past 8 a.m. we pull into the Jericho general store so Gwen Hinman can buy a half-gallon of local chocolate milk. “This stuff is incredible,” she says as she tosses the jug into the truck bed with her shearing board and toolboxes. “I think I go through a half-gallon a day.”
We’re heading up the road to Joe and Carol Haddock’s place for Gwen’s first sheep-shearing job of the day. Having crisscrossed New England’s maze of back roads for many years now, shearing at huge farms and tiny homesteads, Gwen not only knows the rural landscape like few others; she also knows the best places to grab a much-needed mouthful of calories to sustain herself for work that is nothing if not physically demanding.
During peak shearing seasons, Gwen often leaves her house at 4 a.m. and doesn’t return until after 10 p.m. Over those long days she might shear more than 100 sheep and drive several hundred miles, barely stopping for a meal. She estimates that annually she drives 40,000 miles and shears 8,000 to 10,000 sheep.
“Today,” Gwen says as we pull into the farm, “will be pretty simple: 35 sheep here, then a few Shetlands at another farm, and then home.”
As is the case with many of the farmers she shears for, Gwen met the Haddocks through her father, David Hinman, who lived in Acworth, New Hampshire and sheared throughout New England for nearly 50 years. David and Joe Haddock shared a wild sense of humor as well as a love of sheep, and they developed a deep friendship over the years, marked by the seasonal ritual of shearing the flock. David would time his twice-annual visit so that the barn work was done just in time to watch a hockey game with Joe.
Gwen hollers hello to Joe and Carol and gets right to work in the small barn near the house. The Haddocks raise Lincoln sheep, an old English breed with fine, crimpy fleece that can reach the ground. The Lincolns—tall, heavy-looking specimens with corkscrews of fleece hanging over their eyes—crowd closer in their stalls as Gwen positions her shearing board in the alleyway and starts setting up the electric motor that powers her clippers.
Shearing has been practiced in much the same way for hundreds of years, with the exception of a gradual change from hand-operated blade shears to electric shears in the mid-20th century. (Some purists still use blade shears.) All that’s needed is a dry holding pen for the sheep and a board or floor space that can easily be kept clean and where the shearer can slide the sheep into a scripted sequence of unsheeplike positions—first on its rump, with its back leaning against the shearer and its four legs straight out and head flopped to the side (imagine a beanbag with legs), then pinched between the shearer’s legs, and eventually stretched out on its side.
If you’ve ever tried to hold a nervous sheep, you’ll appreciate why speed and efficiency are so prized in shearing. A good shearer will work astonishingly quickly, and very neatly, shaving the sheep in long strokes that are carefully patterned to remove all the wool in one piece, like a blanket. By quickly I mean really quickly. The world’s top contenders (and their competitions are legendary) can de-wool an entire sheep in approximatley 30 seconds. But it is not just about speed. The best shearers are as precise as they are fast, taking care that the animal’s skin doesn’t get nicked and that the wool is all cut to a uniform length.
Watching a shearer, for me, is a lot like watching a fire: you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s astonishing and beautiful to see a very woolly, round sheep rapidly transformed into a sleek, velvety form.
Although shearing itself has not changed much over the years, the number of sheep to shear has. At the height of Vermont’s sheep fever around 1850, there were 1.6 million Merino sheep in the state and wool was worth a lot more per pound than it is now. With sheep farming in decline for 150 years in New England, largely due to shifting global economics around the wool trade, it is no surprise that skilled shearers are hard to find today. There are 6 shearers and 165 sheep farms registered with the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association, and although there may be more shearers out there, it’s clear that folks like Gwen are among the few keeping a centuries-old, rural profession alive.
Joe and Carol arrive and greet us warmly. Gwen tells me later that at first it was very hard for her to shear alone for all the people who were close to her father. David Hinman died from a heart attack while shearing at the age of 64. Much beloved throughout New England for being a skilled shearer who charged little for his craft—as well as for being a big-hearted raconteur—he left huge shoes to fill, especially for a daughter who is by nature shy and not inclined to take the stage.
“There was no way I wasn’t going to shear for the people who knew my dad so well and where he talked about me all the time, but it was hard,” Gwen told me. “This isn’t just a job. People depend on you. My first season [alone] was tough… here I was missing him so much, and people were disappointed that I wasn’t him.”
Gwen still lives close to where she grew up, on a homestead in New Hampshire. In the early years of her childhood, the family lived in a half-built cabin without running water, taking bucket showers on the porch even in winter. Her father sheared—he had begun passionately at the age of 15—and also taught school, while her mother raised three children. David always invited Gwen and her brothers along on his shearing road trips.
“My older brother sheared exactly twice and still has zero interest in farming,” Gwen says. “My younger brother would shear now and then. I came to it last, reluctantly at age 25, but with me, it stuck.”
A big turning point for Gwen came on a trip to New Zealand in 2000. She went to go hiking, but ended up taking a shearing workshop and got so fired up that she returned home to partner with her father. “We had so much fun,” she recalls. “He was a riot, very quick-witted.” Gwen returned to New Zealand in 2005 to work on a crew of 13 roving shearers for a full season. In New Zealand the farms are huge by American standards; 16,000 sheep is a respectable flock. Being the only woman, and at age 30 much older than the guys, Gwen’s nickname was “Grandma,” but she kept up with the best of them, once shearing 350 sheep by quitting time. (“It almost killed me.”)
Gwen, who is built like an endurance runner—all long, lean muscle—seems to thrive on the physical rigor of her profession as much as her father thrived on its opportunity for storytelling. It demands balance, finesse, and the strength to spend an 8-hour day wrestling 150-pound animals between your shins and turning them with one arm while constantly moving heavy clippers with the other. Gwen shears year-round but barely complains about having bare hands in frigid open barns in winter or about the challenge of semi-wild breeds whose horns thrash against the shearer’s legs. It’s a job that demands self-sufficiency and pluck, as a shearer never knows what she will face when she shows up at a new job, and often has to carve out a space to work with difficult animals in difficult conditions.
Sheep owners sometimes treat Gwen differently because she’s a slight woman, until they see her work, see how smooth she is. Gwen explains how vital it is for a shearer to stay one step ahead of a sheep’s movements all the time, adjusting your hold before it struggles so you don’t have to muscle it down. It takes intuition and calm control, and it helps when no one comes in too close to startle the animal or crowd its movements. Gwen tells the story of her father shearing at a farm where the shepherd kept 17 full-grown horned rams just because he liked being around them. Rams are heavy and can be tough, so her dad would save them until last. (“That way if I hurt myself at least I’m at the end of the job,” he’d say.) This man brought all 17 rams to David’s shearing station and asked, probably feeling badly, “Is there anything I can do?” “Yes. Go away,” David said, knowing that no help was better than someone standing too close.
In the Haddocks’ barn the sheep mill around Gwen as she sits them down on her board one by one. The space is clean and sweet smelling, full of recently mowed round bales stacked in between the pens. By lunchtime Gwen has sheared all the sheep and Joe has carefully bagged and labeled all the fleeces, which have an incredible luster and softness. Handling raw wool makes you appreciate what a miracle it is: a natural fiber that is waterproof and warm, can be spun or woven or felted, and has made shelter, clothing, and rugs for humans for thousands of years. Carol Haddock makes intricate Scandinavian hooked rugs from her fleeces, each one a unique work of art. She shows me an example as we head into the farmhouse for lunch.
Carol and Joe have made bread and chili, which we eat with their bright green homemade pickles. Joe puts a jar of them in Gwen’s hand with a check as we say goodbye. Gwen gets offered many gifts, and sometimes she will barter. Sheep shearing may be vital to the health of the sheep as well as a way to harvest the wool that some farmers prize and sell, but Gwen knows that it’s also more than that. Like her father before her, she is an intimate and vital part of the small farm fabric of New England—its seasonal demands and struggles and pride. She has seen many sheep farms give up while others pick up the dream. Her work gives her access to something that is timeless, yet often sustained by the thinnest of threads.
As we head to the next farm, with Gwen’s shepherd pup, Lyle, curled up on my lap in the truck, I feel like taking a nap, and I’m not the one who did all the work. Gwen is unflagging. Over the next several days she will be in New York State to shear at a farm with 2,000 dairy sheep. The sheep there are crossbreeds and weigh some 200 pounds each. She will shear in cramped quarters for 9 or 10 hours straight. It sounds brutal.
So I ask Gwen the inevitable question: Does she ever think about another career?
“Sometimes I fantasize about being a librarian,” she says. “Or maybe owning a flower shop. Something really quiet and gentle. But then again, I’d probably lose my mind.”