On a sunny November morning at Browder’s Birds in Mattituck, 22 shaggy sheep are all corralled in a fenced-in covered enclosure. They are calm, some sitting, some standing, some bleating into oblivion. But their coats, all curly and furry, look as if they have yet to have their quarantine cut. The long curls are cream colored at the root but ombre out into a golden and then brown color, dyed from the dirt.
But today is the day they get a fresh cut. One by one they are led out of the enclosure and onto a wooden platform where Tabbethia Haubbold, a professional shearer and owner of Long Island Yarn and Farm, is waiting with clippers in hand. The farm hires her every year to help with the shearing. With deft hands, she turns the sheep on its back and begins shearing its stomach. The animal sits there calmly leaning back into her arms as Haubbold begins the barbering process.
“All these sheep have done this,” Holly Browder, owner of the farm along with her husband, Chris, said. “So, they kind of know what’s going on.” This process happens twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall.
As Haubbold moves down the sheep’s body with the clippers, the wool comes off in sheets, matted together like a thick blanket. Once she finishes one section, she gently flips the sheep over to another furry side to start there. About five minutes later, they are hairless, and the sheep gets up and walks away, about 10 to 12 pounds lighter. Her team quickly moves in to clear the wool on the wooden platform, sweeping it into a plastic garbage bag.
From there, the process moves to cleaning the wool. The bag is emptied on a makeshift sorting table — chicken wire framed by wood. Browder, along with Nicole Delma, owner of Mind Offline, a South Fork-based store that sells crafting kits and handmade goods, are piecing their way through the wool, looking for grass, sticks and pieces of material too dirty or matted. Delma uses yarn from Browder’s sheep to knit hats for her store.
“Oh my, look at these curls,” she says, admiring the creamy ringlets of wool she is sorting through.
“This is gorgeous,” Browder adds. “We are giving it a good shake, and then we’re gonna look at it for how long the locks are. If it’s really good, like this — that’s really pretty — a fiber artist would buy this.”
After it’s sorted, Browder puts the wool into brown paper bags for later. From there, some of it will be cleaned and sold as is, while some of it will be sent to a mill to be processed into yarn. The wool that is sold unprocessed is sold to fiber artists or weavers. “People are actually buying a lot of raw product right now and doing all different things like hand spinning or felting,” Browder said. The wool that gets spun into yarn is sent back to Browder who then commissions artists to weave or knit it into sweaters, gloves and hats to be sold back on the farm.
What makes a piece of clothing like a sweater so special is seeing the story of the wool in the product. “Look,” Browder says, pointing to a cleaned bunch of wool. “Even that still has some pieces in it. I see in the sweaters sometimes, you can sometimes see straw. It shows up like where it was still in the yarn. But I always tell people it’s kind of cool because it’s like a piece of straw on your sweater.”