On April 26th, we went to Sheep Shearing Day at Ardenwood Historic Farm.
We arrived after the shearing itself was over, but still in time to see plenty of formerly woolly ruminants looking svelte and wary after their haircuts. The sheep in this photo are keeping a close eye on the border collie crouched at the edge of the field. She herded them all into a trailer for travel to another field shortly after I snapped a few pictures.
The Ardenwood sheep are a mix of breeds, and unfortunately, I didn’t write down which ones, though I think some are Corriedale. Whatever the case, while there were some fleeces that were not as appealing, many were long staple with a heavy lanolin scent and a beautiful hand.
Ardenwood is run as a Victorian era California farm, with a working horse drawn railroad, a variety of animals, and crops in regular rotation. It’s a lovely weekend destination for Bay Area families, and it was a real pleasure to go there again. We hadn’t been in over a year, and it was nice to see so much going on. The costumed park attendants were hard at work sorting, combing, carding, and spinning the wool, and the kids got right in on the action.
Gabriel found the looms fascinating and spent a little time learning to weave. The little loom had a very simple cloth pattern on it, but there was a more complex one further down the table.
Liam and Eleanor were more excited by the carding, which was being done on a hand cranked machine.
In the barnyard, we arrived just in time to feed the newly shorn sheep. While the adult animals looked a little eerie with their short cuts and alien eyes, the lambs were as charming as only lambs can be, and all were only too glad to accept handfuls of timothy and alfalfa from the children. The Ardenwood staff make it clear that you are to drop the food where they can reach it, but several times an overzealous sheep pulled it from an outstretched hand before it was let drop. Eleanor was accidentally kissed by a sheep and was made very happy by it.
All in all, it was a delightful day. The weather was perfect, and the outdoors and the animals and the space and the children all conspired to make a perfect time out. It was hard to ignore the fact of work, though, in this family outing. While we missed the vigorous act of sheep shearing, the outspread fleeces and heaps of wool bespoke a long and arduous journey from sheep to cloth. The woman I spoke to told me it would take the entirety of the coming year to spin all the wool.
Because Ardenwood is a living museum of times past, all this work is and will be done by hand. And while for most of these days, handiwork is a luxury, for the Ardenwood staff it’s a job. The woman I spoke to was a spinner. She told me that she’d done it for pleasure for many years, but that working at Ardenwood had dulled her pleasure and that after she left, she’d actually given it up for a time. She’d only returned to spinning after a break of several years, and only returned to the farm last year for the shearing.
This, to me, is an interesting part of the history of handiwork. It’s a very enjoyable activity only when it’s not an intensive daily slog. As a small child reading Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie, I remember being struck by how much Anne and Laura hated sewing, an activity that sounded interesting, fun, and relaxing to me. But it wasn’t as though I had to sew a stitch if I didn’t want to. Any sewing I did was unskilled and done solely for the pleasure of doing it. Anne and Laura both achieved competence and even mastery in the craft, but neither enjoyed it because it was something they had to do even though they had no real interest in it. This is much how I feel about vacuuming or cleaning the kitchen. I might even enjoy the results of my labor, but the labor itself is not something I want to think about.
Ardenwood is beautiful this time of year, and for idle adventurers like me and mine, paying a small fee to go and harvest corn or card wool or feed livestock is a joy. For others, it’s work.