Do you wear wool? Yes. Do you ever think about how it gets from sheep to scarf? Probably not.
Prepare yourself for a fact finding adventure mum.
I only did this for a short while and it was around a month ago so what isn’t grossly inaccurate is simply gross as it was but the filthy aspects of the job that stuck in the head. But I can’t explain how much I enjoyed it whilst I was working.
A day in the life: roustabout
There are so many processes and factors that go into making an item of clothing, describing them becomes troublesome. I’ll try and start from the top.
WARNING: this post contains countless references to faecal matter.
The wool you wear comes from sheep (unless you can afford Alpaca you lucky few) different prices you pay give different grades of quality. I worked mostly with the tippity top. AAAA Merino wool. The good stuff. This wool is taken off the sheep by shearers, the wool is given to the roustabout and sorted as each fleece contains:
Offcuts – bits that come off in small amounts on the ground
Stainage- wool that is stained with blood or shit
Fleece- big bit, not golden, but the most expensive item you deal with so you treat it with care
Skirt- the sweat and shit soaked wool on the edge of the fleece
Crutch- wool taken from around the crotch and ass, goes without saying this is also mostly stained with shit
Dags- bits of shit, from pebble to boulder
The wool gets sheared by shearers, collected and organised by roustabouts and then graded by the wool… Grader. After that it goes into bales, the bales are stamped and they get sent to China for processing into various items of clothing. I believe the Merino wool I was working with goes mainly into producing lingerie. Ooh la la.
The sheep are either purebred or crossbreed. I worked with both and preferred the pure. With a crossbreed a sheep can produce Merino wool but still retain the size of a meat sheep. So the money from the meat can make up for a slight reduction in wool quality (I write this with the knowledge that it will be read by people who know more about crossbreeds and sheep than anyone on earth, correct me in the comments when I’m wrong Jane).
In addition I apologise Jane as though The sheep at your farm were impressive in size (crossbreeds) they were too impressive. Think small horses, actually think a medium sized pony covered in wool. One of the shearers simply left after looking at one because they were too big.
The shearers made me drag them and I couldn’t even begin to lift it.
The second farm I worked at had smaller sheep (purebred) but slightly better wool. However the price of wool sinks while meat rises.
The Shearers are a funny bunch. I was never quite sure if they hated or loved their job. I was also never quite sure if I was wholly welcome. As I understand it the sheep shearers are one of the most unionised groups in the world, with some parts dating back to the 19th century. Which is pretty damn ancient in Australia. They strike and lobby furiously compared to most, so as un-unionised labour it was a bit delicate. Especially in a metal shed in the ass end of nowhere with 20 or so heavily tattooed insanely strong Australians.
There has only ever been one case of shearers striking because of non unionised labour. However as these are shearers the strike involved a near civil war in Queensland; armed militias, raids on shearing sheds and huge wool fires. I was understandably pretty nervous about working with shearers.
They were the nicest men I’ve ever worked with.
Singing all day long and exchanging stories, they told me about what it’s like growing into a shearing job, schooling in Oz, the history of shearing and the one thing that came through whenever they were speaking was how proud most of them were to be a shearer. Writing this in Sydney where heritage is a car from the 70s I can see why most of these men loved their work. I thought my stories would be inane in comparison but they seemed to enjoy hearing about Europe and what it was like; they were particularly insistent about tales of Amsterdam.
Shearing, subsequently shearers, built Australia. Shearing and mining are the backbone of this young nation, to some extent they still are. I felt proud to work with these men and for this country.
I’d never do it again mind.
It was fucking hard work.
Half 6 wake up, pack lunch and meet outside the old railway station to get a lift to the shed.
Work is 8 or 9 hours a day but the pay is good, shearers get around $1.50 a sheep shorn (300 sheep a day) and roustabouts get a nice base wage. With nothing much in Young to spend the money on it saves itself.
The day is divided into 4 runs of 2 hours each with half an hour “smoko” in the middle. Though if the guys are slow it’s till the last sheep in the shed is shorn.
Each shed is individual with its own distinctive character, as explained to me by a shearer named Hardman. Some of the shearers prefer the new steel sheds with air con and sound systems. Some, like Hardman, prefer the old brick and tin affairs that you can smell the history in.
Either way the shed is a large freestanding building on two levels. The sheep are led up a ramp upstairs and herded into a pen by Kelpies. From the pen they are dragged to the… Shearing place? A long row of petrol powered, belt run engines that feed the hand-pieces (shavers). The shearers, maybe seven of them, each have their own hand-piece and don’t you ever think about touching it. After the machines are oiled, the music is playing and the clock is set the shearing starts. The men grab the sheep by the legs, slide themselves into a harness so no stooping is needed and use a set of strokes that remove the wool without harming the sheep or damaging the fleece. It takes between one and two minutes. The shorn sheep is thrown down a slippery dip (actual term) and into a pen beneath. The sheep in each individual shearer’s pen are counted and that is how they get paid.
As a roustabout I sweep, my tool is a plastic broom “it’s not a broom it’s another arm” I was quickly told. I use it like a hockey stick, gliding over the hardwood floor and sweeping up the wool. The off cuts are the fist things to come off the sheep, tiny bits of wool that fly off the shaver. These get swept 10 metres along the floor and are thrown in the off cut bin. I then run back to the sheep, grab the crutch and pull it from her, it too goes in its respective bin. The shit (dags) is next to be removed. This is usually on or around the crutch and so I have to pull it all off and make sure none of the crutch or off cuts are stained before they go into the bin. They are always stained, stained wool also has it’s own bin, on the other side of the shed. Next is the fleece, it’s the size of a doona (duvet) and three times as heavy. I pick it up, holding and folding it in a certain order and then I throw it on the table. This… Is the hardest part of the job. If it’s not picked up and folded EXACTLY so, or not thrown high or far enough then it tears itself apart when it hits the table; an the fleece has to be whole.
Imagine laying a 10 kg tablecloth made of glass but you only have 2 seconds to pick and throw it.
After it hits the table, usually upside down or in five sections I run around the outside pulling off the trim, the edges of the fleece that are stained. Stainage bin. Rip off the flesh that clings to the fibre and tug off the lumps of shit also tangled inside. Dag bin. Run to the classer who takes one thread. Examines minutely. Pulls off the bits of shit I missed. Glares at me and barks “number 4”. I throw it onto a pile of fleeces all of matching quality. Running back to the shearer who is waiting for me to sweep the wool and blood from his workplace. I sweep like a man possessed and that’s it. The next sheep is ready.
This all takes place in maybe 2 minutes more often 1.
As a roustabout I usually swept for two or three shearers, all shearing differently and at different speeds. That’s a fleece every minute. All items, stainage, off cuts, crutch, dags, fleece have to go into a different bin in a different part of a shed the size of Hogwarts great hall. Any is left on the floor and within 20 seconds you’re wading through wool as it just piles up. If you’re behind by 10 seconds then you find there are three fleeces, no four no five fleeces to fold and throw and sort with only one table to use. If there is any stainage on the fleece I have to sort it again. Who would buy a woollen jumper that is shit-stained? In 8 hours there is not one second where you are not moving. If you’re still something’s wrong.
The quickest way is to throw the dags rather than sweep them so you’re always on the lookout for another flying piece of shit in the face. If the sheep have not been looked after they get flyblown. Wet wool = a handful of maggots. Flyblown wool has it’s own bin. It’s easy to slip on the blood and telling yourself not to touch your face is all well and good but as the stench is so strong in the shed you only realise you have shit in your hair and blood on your neck when you get home.
The sheep don’t like being shorn and often run for the door. This means you have to catch the sheep.
Apparently this is an anomaly, however when I was working at another farm (obviously not yours Jane) there were a fair few sheep that died while being shorn. The music also makes them panic and when the metal starts playing they visibly go apeshit not to put too fine a point on it. When pulling poo off the sheep the shearers have a fondness for spraying you with the milk… In the face. The sheds are 40 degrees and it turns sour fast.
If a hand piece goes down the slippery dip into the cave of shit and terrified shivering newly shorn sheep then I slide down and get it. Likewise if a sheep has got buried in the shit at the bottom and is blocking up the chute then I pull him out and crawl back into the light.
The wool press is also my concern. Trying to operate a 50 year old, needle toothed crushing skip when you’re shaking and covered in sweat and shit is actually really fucking scary.
I sort, skirt, sweep and disrobe at least 800 sheep a day.
I know for a fact it will be the hardest job I will ever do in my life. After 2 days I couldn’t move my legs. I lost a crazy amount of weight working as a roustabout.
But by the end I got pretty good. I threw the fleece perfectly and learned how to move fast, like, fast fast. I got stronger and started sleeping properly for once in my life.
I couldn’t do it as a profession, I’m not quite strong or fast enough. Let alone being a shearer.
But I learnt about Australia, actual Australia not Sydney Australia. That’s what I came here to do.
Next stop opal mining!