When used in casual conversation, the term "sheep to shawl" refers to the process of removing a sheep's fleece1 and converting it to usable and somewhat attractive2 fabric, doing everything by hand. A sheep to shawl is also a competitive activity, in which teams of people race to make a shawl from raw wool as quickly as possible. Like curling, Quidditch, and caber tossing, the sheep to shawl is an arcane sport, intimately bound up with certain cultures and time periods. Such competitions are usually held at sheep and wool festivals, county fairs, historical reenactments, and fiber arts conferences.
Converting a sheep to a shawl requires 4 steps.
- Shearing the sheep to remove the wool.
- Carding or combing the wool to separate and organize the individual fibers into a form that can be spun quickly and easily. The team can use hand carders or wool combs to accomplish this.3
- Spinning the wool. Spinning unwashed wool is known as spinning "in the grease". Water-resistant items can be made with the resulting yarn.
- Weaving the wool into a shawl. Shawls are easy to produce, lend themselves well to a variety of weaving patterns, use a considerable amout of yarn, and require no sewing to complete.
With a well organized team, the whole process can take less than four hours.
The optimum size for a sheep to shawl team is between 5 and 7 people. As with other sports, one member acts as a captain. The team consists of:
- 1 shearer
- 3 carders/spinners
- 1 weaver
- 1 plyer/winder (optional)
- 1 "rover" (optional)
Each team brings their own sheep and equipment. Less-traditional competitions send a chosen fleece to the team some weeks beforehand for washing and dyeing. The loom the weaver will use is pre-warped so the fresh yarn can be used as weft.
The team works together in JIT assembly line style. When the sheep to shawl begins, the shearer begins shearing while the rest of the team stands by. Once enough wool to start with has been sheared, the other team members begin carding or combing while the shearing continues. Once enough wool has been carded for them to start, the spinners begin while other team members finish up carding. The plyer's job is to take the freshly spun yarn and double or triple ply it if need be, and wind it onto shuttles for the weaver. The rover runs the wool or yarn from shearer to carders to spinners to weaver, and helps out wherever needed. As team members run out of material, they join in on the next stage of production, except for the weaving. Like sheep shearing, the weaving is really a one-person job.
A team entry isn't complete until the shawl is off the loom and finished: fringe knotted and trimmed, etc. In some sheep to shawls, the finished products are then judged for overall quality.
- Leaving the sheep alive and uninjured. Wool from dead sheep is called "pulled wool" and is traditionally used for Hudson's Bay blankets.
- A purely subjective description. In the fiber arts, the term "attractive" may be applied to a pink-and-purple shapeless tube with no definable purpose.
- Wool combs are long claw-like objects with wooden handles. Using them is much more dangerous than holding a sheep down and shaving it.