Sheepshearing at Spitalfields City Farm
It is the season for the shearing of the sheep here in Spitalfields and Tom Davies came over from the Vauxhall farm yesterday to do the deed. When he described the act as “something like a dance,” I could not envisage what he meant, until Tom set to work, taking hold of a sheep and twisting and turning it, as he sheared the fleece away.
For the time it took to shear the sheep, man and beast became partners in a strange choreography. The control was all with the man, but the sheep had to withhold resistance to allow the shearer to do his business. Commencing with the sheep on its back, working in a state of intense concentration, Tom manoeuvred the creature, securing it between his legs and manipulating it with his left hand, while holding electric clippers in his right. It is an act of will as much as physical dominance, and once Tom flipped the sheep onto its back, the animal went into a swoon of passivity that permitted him to set to work – not entirely dissimilar to the day dream that humans enter into while at the hairdressers.
Strength and balance are required to hold the creature firmly in place and manipulate it with dexterity while shearing. Equally, control and finesse are necessary to achieve a close shave and not cut the sheep anywhere tender. And I am pleased to report that Tom demonstrated all these qualities, to the delight of the excited audience at the Spitalfields City Farm, where the annual sheepshearing is one of the highlights of the season.
No blood was shed and afterwards all the sheep emerged looking sleek yet alert, where before they looked fuzzy and vacant. Once they recovered from the shock of this ritualised public de-nuding, I have no doubt they felt much more comfortable in the Summer temperatures. “It went reasonably well,” declared Tom with nonchalant modesty, rubbing his hands on his shirt and wiping the perspiration from his tanned features, after receiving rapturous applause for his heroic endeavours from an enthusiastic crowd.
Meanwhile nearby, in the cool shade of an old barn away from the dusty heat of the shearing pen, the ladies of the London Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers were at work. They were taking raw fleece and carding and spinning it to create yarn, and weaving and knitting the thread, thereby demonstrating the stages of the creation of woollen textiles, and telling a story that is as old as humanity.
Over on the other side of Spitalfields, we have Tenterground and Tenter St, as a reminder of the weaving of wool that once took place here, even before the silk weavers came. A tenter ground was the site where newly woven pieces of wet woollen cloth were stretched out after washing, onto wooden frames called tenters which held them taut so the fabric would dry flat and square.
Jenifer Midgeley had a table loom set up beside her friends from the Guild, Carole, Jean and Pat who were hard at work spinning wool, using wheels and spindles. There is a quality to these modest activities that encourages garrulous sociability, and I found the placid atmosphere of amicable conversation in the shady barn was a welcome respite to rowdy cheers of the sheepshearing in the scorching sunlight of the yard.
I watched Jenifer as she demonstrated her table loom, and I observed faces illuminated in amazement when she revealed the separation of the warp and the weft, inviting passersby to take a seat and pass the shuttle back and forth through the loom. In a moment, the mystery of the creation of cloth was manifest in its essential simplicity. For some children, the sight of women spinning and weaving was a novelty they had not seen before, outside books of fairy tales, and I saw many young ones captivated by the rare yet commonplace magic of these graceful senior ladies working at their wheels and looms.
Sheepshearing is traditionally a time of celebration and high jinks, and the city farm was overrun with delighted city families enjoying a rural retreat from the dusty urban streets beyond. With Tom shearing the fleece and the women of the Guild spinning wool and weaving cloth, it was an ideal diversion to fill a beautiful afternoon of early Summer in London.