Sheree’s Woolhandling Adventure
by Ann van Engelen
Former world champion woolhandler Sheree Alabaster grew up in the shearing world and encourages others to join the industry as a way to travel and participate in competitions
“My parents Ray and Libby started a shearing run in the 1970s and dad was a Golden Shears champion and was in the New Zealand shearing team,” says Sheree.
“Through the run, they were able to purchase their farm. When I was growing up mum would assist when she could, and I would help in the school holidays. “We used to camp out, and my main job was to support the cook and then go to the woolshed and do the woolhandling, which was called rousing.”
Sheree began helping her dad at six years old gathering the wool and did her first big stint at 13 years old.
“We were on a stay out, and one of the ladies got very sick. Dad couldn’t find a wool handler, so I said I would do it. The first two days I enjoyed and then I struggled but kept at it — they were nine-hour days. Every summer I would help, it was like a holiday as you got to meet many different people and through them, I travelled the world. One of dad’s shearers now lives in Scotland, one is in Norway, and one is in Wales.
“At the end of school I went to teachers college, and my savings from wool handling helped pay for my degree. Eventually, I took a year off teaching and went to Scotland and Norway to learn how they do things and travelled around Europe as well.
“Our whole family are involved in the shearing industry. My cousin Reuben is doing well, and his sister has picked up a handpiece, and his little sister wants to be a wool handler. My dad died eight years ago, and Reuben’s dad now leases our farm and keeps things going.
“Dad was a show shearer and judge and mum a woolhandling judge, and I travelled with them. At 21 I started making some finals and enjoyed the competition — I went through the junior and senior grades and am now in the open. I gained first place in the North Island Circuit Open final for three longwool fleeces and three second-shear, with 159.38pts, and am in the Trans Tasman team. I have been a world champ team member in the past, and at this year’s Golden Shears I was picked for the world champion team again to go to France in July.
“Initially when you first start it is about understanding your wools and trying not to interfere with the shearers’ pattern. The handler makes the value for the farmer because what we do with it is what matters.”
Oddments are anything but body wool.
“Then it goes to the wool stores and has processing requirements depending on its end product such as carpets.
“In a shearing shed it is teamwork — it is very different to competitions, where it is you and the shearer. Once you gain experience, you see what someone might miss, or if a shearer is in trouble, you can turn the cord off for him or her or help the presser. The presser needs to press and number the bales correctly, and the ganger is the person responsible for everything in the shed and what the farmer requires.
“Depending on the market you can advise them how to make the best money because that is what we are there for at the end of the day. Some have food ready, flush toilets and clean sheds for us and this lets us know we are valued and encourages us to do our best. It is a hard job some stay in their own home town, and some will travel — I have a daughter now so don’t travel so much.
Currently, we have a shortage of shearers and woolhandlers, and teams come from the UK to help us. We need our young people to get involved, it is a fantastic job, and kiwis are renowned as being hard workers. Shearing is a specialist job, and you can make really good money.
“There are good days and bad, but if you go with a good attitude and are prepared to listen it can be fun. We have the best woolhandling, and shearing practices in the world and sheep are still the backbone of our country. People will return to woollen products instead of the throwaway society we have become, and the price of wool is slowly coming up, and we look forward to positive things in the industry. Training is coming back, and there will be lots of opportunities for farm-based work.
“My mentors are my mum and dad because they had nothing, started the shearing crew, and purchased their farm. Behind every good man is a good woman. Dad would be gone all day and get in late, and mum would have home ready and was responsible for the wool handling, and you had to do it right. Their influences steered me in the right direction — they had a dream and fulfilled it.”