New England Culture & Learning Through the Lens of Sheep & Wool

Sheep & Wool: Catalysts for Community-Based Education in Western MA

In the early spring, New England history and culture come alive with the arrival of newborn lambs and the shearing of sheep for the production of wool. The wool industry has strong ties to western Massachusetts, with annual events that celebrate our historical past and other events which showcase modern day shepherds and their flocks.

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Four community events take place this spring that are rich in learning opportunities! Baby animals, history, animal husbandry, and even fiber arts, are all great catalysts for learning through community engagement at these annual events:

BABY ANIMALS

When springtime comes around each year, sheep and their lambs bring New England history and culture alive! Starting in April following lambing season, the Hancock Shaker Village, an outdoor history museum dedicated to preserving the Shaker legacy in the Berkshires, opens for the season with a celebration of baby animals and Shaker culture in western Massachusetts. For three weeks families are invited to come to the farm for a lively gathering of newborn lambs and other baby farm animals in their 1826 Round Stone Barn.

Educational and local farms are other favorite places families can visit in early spring, just after ewes have given birth and naming of the lambs is taking place. This is also the time of year for sheep shearing; sometimes before lambing season and sometimes just after.

SHEEP SHEARING

Sheep-shearing is a great place to begin the conversation with your children about the influences sheep have upon our culture here in New England. Seeing sheep being shorn with traditional tools while listening to tales being spun by the shearer can give kids a unique insight into our regional history and this historical trade. Asking questions about how wool is processed after a sheep has been shorn, and how modern day processing techniques might compare to the techniques used in the Colonial era can support interests and lead to a lot of learning! Check out the sheep shearing taking place at any one of the above mentioned events, some with traditional tools (Wool Days & Sheep to Shawl), others with modern electric tools for comparison (Sheep & Woolcraft Fair).

SHEEP HERDING

Both Sheep to Shawl and the Sheep & Woolcraft Fair will have demonstrations of sheep herding in their meadows with skilled border collies. Using a series of whistles and commands to communicate with their collies, shepherds demonstrate the amazing intelligence of these beautiful dogs. Have your kids think about what makes these dogs so good at herding sheep, what type of environments sheep need to thrive, and how border collies are a great help to sheep herders retrieving their flocks from pasture.

COLONIAL HISTORY

When English settlers first came to New England, they imported sheep for the production of meat and wool, and to this day, western Massachusetts is strongly influenced by our woolen industry that stems back over 300 years! At Wool Days, get a glimpse into life during the early Colonial Era when sheep were shorn in the spring for their wool to be gathered, carded, spun, dyed, and used to make clothes and linens.

Take your learning to the next step and discover how wool and other fibers were made into fine textiles and garments in the Colonial Era. Compare and contrast wool textiles to silk, cotton and linen, and how these textiles change in quality as technology improves. Make a visit to see Celebrating the Fiber Arts at the Helen Geier Flynt Textile Gallery to see examples of clothing and textiles from as early as the 17th century. Examples include a well tailored wool coat and a vibrant red wool quilt from the early 19th-century. How was wool dyed such a vibrant color? How was wool woven to make the cloth for fine wool coats, and what details are present that demonstrate the talent of a skilled tailor. Come curious and ready to tour Historic Deerfield to learn about Colonial history of textiles and fashion.

TECHNOLOGY, MILLS & FIELD TRIPS

Mass production of woolen textiles increased with technological advancements.  Hand carders, spinning wheels and looms were replaced with textile machinery in mills. For example, see how socks were knitted in the early 1800s at Old Sturbridge Village during their Wool Days, and compare it to this Gearhart Sock Knitting Machine from the early 1900s:

To see this and other tools, machinery and workplace artifacts, consider a field trip to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA. Be sure to check out their exhibit, Wonder of Wool: Ancient Fiber to Modern Marvel, while there!

Another potential field trip is with Pioneer Valley Institute for a guided tour of the Green Mountain Wool Spinnery Mill to see vintage equipment in action. An organized field trip is taking place on May 17th, 2015, leaving by bus from Greenfield Community College.

 KNITTING, WEAVING & KEEPING SHEEP

If you get bitten by the wool-bug and want to learn how to weave, knit or even how to keep sheep, our region has a number of community and civic organizations you can tap into for support.

Sheep & Shawl in South Deerfield offers classes, and WEBS in Northampton has free knitting & crochet drop-ins; Both are more appropriate for self-directed teens & life-long learners.  For a more intergenerational environment, consider one of the free knitting groups that meet-up at local libraries. On Mondays, Sunderland Public Library has a knitting group at 10am, and the Westhampton Public Library hosts an evening knit meet-up at 6:30pm. On Wednesday evenings, both the Cushman Library in Bernardston (5:30pm) and the Goodwin Memorial Library in Hadley (6:30pm) have knitting groups. and on Thursdays, the Dickinson Memorial Library in Northfield also has an evening group at 6pm.  These are all free and open to the public.  Wonderful intergenerational environments where skills and stories can be shared!

If you’re interested in weaving, find a weaving guild nearest you, like the  Pioneer Valley Weavers Guild.  For a comprehensive list, visit FiberArts.org. And if you’re interested in keeping sheep, be sure to check out the 31st Annual North East Youth Sheep Show at the Big E in West Springfield this July.  In the meantime, check out UMass Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Program for resources, and visit with the Pioneer Valley 4-H Young Shepherds at the  Sheep & Woolcraft Fair.

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