The wool truth

Sara Lillegard is the gallery coordinator for Sierra Nevada College’s art galleries. Previously, she was the arts director at the Holland Project in Reno. She’s also an artist. Research for her art led her to recently attend the sheep shearing school at the University of California Research and Extension Center in Hopland.

Tell me about the artwork you’ve been doing the last few years and how it led to this sheep thing.

Over the last at least four years, it’s been transitioning to more fiber-based work—so there’s been a lot of embroidery and other quilting techniques. How it relates to what I’m doing—an overarching theme is exploring how people create a sense of belonging, particularly within the narrative of the American West, so different ways that we identify ourselves within groups, so that’s led me down this obsession with jackets, because the backs of jackets have been an ongoing cultural identity point—whether that’s bowling teams or motorcycle gangs. … The jackets are an easy reference point, but they’re also clothing so there’s a history of fashion and materiality.

And functionality.

Exactly. It’s a protective garment, which you can take on a metaphorical level, with the sort of clan identity. So, through that, I’ve been doing lots of different jacket projects. Doing different motifs and images and playing with the jacket as a sculptural object. … How that led to sheep shearing is just an interest in fiber materiality and the history of making fiber. Two years ago, I ended up going to the Wool Symposium in Point Reyes, California, and it was just a day-long symposium, and I left there overwhelmed by the audience and the conversations that were happening because the audience was made up of a combination of rangeland managers, ranchers, particularly sheep ranchers, artisans, fiber artists, people who do natural dyes, and they were all in the same room sharing conversations about soil restoration and how to rotate pastureland and quality of wool, and what sort of sheep you should be raising based on the region you’re living in, how to manage predators, particularly coyotes. … There were also scientists talking about pollinators. So it was a very interdisciplinary discussion that was happening, and I saw that being a room that was fusing agriculture and artisanship in a way that I hadn’t seen before. … It’s really importat that we make a farm to fiber connection just as much as we’re making a farm to fork connections now. This is where clothing can come from. This is where it used to come from. Now it’s being outsourced and there are environmental impacts.

That’s the first time I’ve heard the expression “farm to fiber.” It seems like I should’ve heard that five years ago.

There are conversations happening, but I feel like they haven’t permeated Nevada in a way people are recognizing yet.

I’d like to hear more about the physical act of shearing sheep.

This is the only way that wool gets off of a sheep. And, for the most part, most breeds have to be sheared because we’ve bred them to the point where they’re producing more wool, and we have to shear them. So you’re using all your body to hold the sheep and keep it in a position where it feels secure and using this machine—which, in my case, I had never used before—to navigate its anatomy to get the wool off in a proper sequence. The sheep we were working with were Targhee ewes. … They’re big ewes and heavy. So you’re maneuvering them around, and this isn’t something that they’re delighted to be a part of. So you’re trying to move them through the process, and keep them from kicking you. You’re trying to get access to their body, you’re trying not to cut them, and you’re trying to move them around in ways where they feel secure, like they’re not slipping out or trying to escape. So all your muscles or tightened up as your bending over and working through this animal, and your constantly rotating. They talk a lot about it being a dance. You’re going through this sequence with this animal, this very unwilling dance partner, and trying to give it a proper haircut.