Rocky Mount Education Director T.J. DeWitt demonstrates how to position a sheep to avoid potentially hurting it while shearing it. (Photos by Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)
PINEY FLATS — As spring begins to take hold and the weather starts to warm, it’s not unusual for people to visit their barbers or stylists to have their winter hair trimmed.
For the Cotswold sheep at the Rocky Mount Living History Museum, however, their springtime haircuts are used as the backdrop to the museum’s first big community event.
On Saturday, the museum hosted Wooly Day to both herald the arrival of spring and demonstrate the procession of wool into cloth, which begins by giving the sheep their only haircuts of the year.
The museum was established in 1962 to preserve William Cobb’s house and property, which was named the territorial capital of the Southwest territory by President George Washington in 1790, before Tennessee had been named a state. The museum presents an interpretation of life in that time period — 1791, to be exact — and, according to Rocky Mount’s executive director Gary Walrath, Wooly Day allows the public a chance to see what farm life in revolutionary America was like.
“It’s one of the things that would have happened in the spring of the year on a farm,” Walrath said. “Once the sheep had gone through the winter with their full fleece, they would be shorn for the spring and summer. The wool then would be used to make clothing and other items on the farm.”
During Wooly Day, the public was invited to view every stage of that process, from the sheep-shearing to the wool-spinning. T.J. DeWitt, Rocky Mount’s education director, demonstrated the first part of the process, shearing, with 18th century techniques and hand shears.
“If you keep the blade right against the skin — the dull part — and keep it still, then you can cut,” DeWitt said. “The trick is to have it come off as a fleece, in one piece.”
DeWitt wasn’t the only one giving the sheep haircuts, however. During his exhibition, he invited onlookers to try their hand at sheep shearing, under his guidance.
“Everyone says, ‘I don’t want to cut her,’ ” DeWitt said. “You do it more by the feel than sight, eventually. When you can feel the back of the blade against her skin, you know you’re not going to cut her.”
Once the sheep was sheared and the fleece was bagged, the wool was taken to the museum’s historic site, where museum employees and visitors took turns cleaning it.
“It’s washed and put out usually in the grass to let the sun dry it,” Walrath said. “Then it’s combed and carted, and it’s basically put onto a spinning wheel and spun into yarn.”
As it turns out, that part, seeing the process take place in one day, isn’t historically accurate. According to Walrath, the entire process — shearing, washing, drying, carding, spinning, and weaving — could take somewhere around 2½ weeks to complete.
“You wouldn’t be doing it all in one day; you’d be doing it for several days,” Walrath said.
Most of that time, Walrath said, would be spent washing and drying the wool, which can take time when done correctly.
“When you’re washing it, you’re getting lanolin out of it,” Walrath said. “You’ve got to get that out, or you won’t be able to card or spin it.”
Wooly Day patrons did not have to wait, however, and were given an opportunity to wash, pick, card and spin wool under the supervision of the museum’s historical interpreters.
As the day went on, Walrath said nearly 500 people stopped by to visit Rocky Mount on Wooly Day, eclipsing last year’s Wooly Day total attendance.
“It increases every year,” Walrath said. “The families love seeing the lambs and the sheep. There’s something for everybody.”
Though Wooly Day offered several options for recreation, certain families found other options for entertainment. In addition to watching the sheep and wool-spinning, Kingsport residents Wes and Lauren Moyer enjoyed watching the reactions from their 19-month-old son Isaac as he interacted with the display.
“He has enjoyed it,” Wes Moyer said. “He got to play with the little baby sheep, and he watched one get sheared earlier. He’s a little uncertain about the big ones, but, other than that, he has had a lot of fun.”
Follow Max Hrenda on Twitter @MaxLHrenda. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpresshrenda