First published as part of a longer article in Yarnmaker 25 (Winter 2015)
On the board, under the lights, six shearers move in an elaborate dance, each turning and controlling his sheep as the wool flows off.
We’re in the big Recreation Centre in Masterton, New Zealand, and it’s the final of the Open at the Golden Shears – regarded as the supreme challenge for competition shearers in New Zealand and internationally. To qualify for the Open, contestants must have shorn over 365 sheep in an eight-hour day. This year, five New Zealanders and a Scotsman have risen through the heats and semis to reach the ultimate test.
While the capacity audience focusses on the shearers, a complex organisation runs smoothly. On the board each shearer has a blue-shirted judge hovering over him with a little clicker to record faults, mostly second cuts in the same place. There’s a referee too. Woolhandlers constantly clear the board, and other people take away the filled woolpacks and put fresh ones in the holders, Out of sight, stewards and rousies* are dealing with the sheep while more judges check the shorn sheep in the pens and give demerit points for any nicks or wool left on.
The first sheep is shorn and out the porthole in under 48 seconds, and excitement rises. The fastest shearer completes his twenty big sheep in about seventeen minutes, to enthusiastic cheers – but that isn’t the end: the shorn sheep still have to be scrutinised. When the result is announced the order has changed, and a clean shear gives the title to Scottish shearer Gavin Mutch. He is emotional accepting the trophy, saying “This is the one everybody dreams about winning”.
Competitions are keenly contested at all levels over the three days of “the Shears”, beginning with the novices who have shorn less than 50 sheep in a day. Novices start young (there was a 12-year-old this year) and they just shear one sheep.
There’s woolpressing too, and no newfangled electric presses here! The competitors get in and tramp, and they have to judge the weight by feel and experience, knowing how much the particular wool type will pack down. Points depend on getting close to 160 kilos in the men’s classes and 150 kilos in the women’s. These are the only events that separate women and men, and I’m told that women shearers have reached the finals of the senior shearing, though not of the open. Something to aim for!
Particularly interesting to me is the woolhandling. I hadn’t realised that each contestant has to keep the board clear for a shearer, as well as picking up and throwing and skirting the fleece as soon as it’s off the sheep. Their speed and concentration are astonishing. Again a judge with a clicker watches each contestant closely. Out the back the fleece will be unrolled again and checked for anything that should have been skirted out, and each of the many containers is emptied to make sure sorting is correct – there might be 2nd pieces, 1st pieces, bellies, neck, fribs, topknot, and so on.
It’s thrilling to watch these skilled woolhandlers. I’m in awe of the young man who wins (he’s only twentythree and he’s won this trophy for the previous two years, as well as competing with success internationally). In the all-important throw his fleeces just unroll over the table and settle perfectly into place.
Hundreds of volunteers, from judges to ticketsellers, not forgetting the shearers who shear for the woolhandlers and the woolhandlers who clear the board for the shearers, have freely given their time. Many take the week off work each year, it means so much to them. Then there are the sheep: over 3000 were trucked in from ten different farms. An even lineup with their wool just the right length has to be provided for each class.
The Golden Shears is astonishing and instructive for anyone interested in sheep and wool. If you are visiting New Zealand, try to be in Masterton in early March!
*Short for rousabout. A rousie does basically any job around the woolshed except shearing. They bring the sheep in and fill the catching pens, and they may skirt and roll fleeces.
The Golden Shears: http://www.goldenshears.co.nz/
To watch some events from previous years, google “Youtube Golden Shears”. There’s a Facebook page too.
I thank Philip Morrison, Gavin Tankersley and Ian Stewart for their encouragement and patient answers to my many questions. Any mistakes are mine.
In case you wish there were more illustrations in the article, here are a few extra photographs. Click to enlarge.