Shears had two blades, about 22-centimetres long, joined by a spring bow to force the shears apart. They were operated with a scissor action. In early colonial slang, shearers were known as jingling johnnies – presumably because of the noise made when their handpieces came together.
In the early years, shearing tallies were not high. In 1856 at Te Awaiti, near Martinborough, a gang of eight men tackled 8,256 sheep. One shearer, named Bartlett, recorded the best day’s tally of 79, but the average around this date was 35 sheep a day. Tallies were low because the sheep were Merinos, a hard breed to shear, and the shearers had little knowledge of good technique or even how to sharpen the shears.
The traditional English way of shearing a sheep involved tying its legs together, placing it on a stool and clipping the wool in criss-cross fashion. In the colonial technique, which was adopted in the 1850s, the sheep sat on its rump, held upright between the knees of the shearer, who clipped the wool off with strokes or blows.
Les Thomsen describes the blade shearing style: ‘First blow, from right side of lower brisket to flank, then break open and out to toe. Clear brisket upward, then across belly to udder, clear bellywool with left hand. Crutch, then first hind leg. Over tail by tilting sheep backwards and lifting with left hand. Top knot, then up neck by turning sheep’s head away and shearing up a natural parting in the wool at the back of the neck to between ears. Shear head, neck, first front leg to below shoulder.’ 1
As the technique improved, so did the tallies. By the 1870s the daily tally rose to 70–80, with the ‘guns’ reaching 100.
It was tough work – hard on the wrists, hands and back. Shearing was a summer activity (usually from November to February), and it was hot in the sheds. Shearers looked forward to smoko at the end of the two-hour run when, with faces covered in sweat, they could stop for a cuppa (cup of tea) and a smoke. It was not surprising that in the late 19th century the Shearers’ Union was active in trying to improve pay and conditions.
The first public demonstrations of shearing machines were in Australia in 1885. Although sheep owners were slow to accept the change, they became converts when they saw the extra pound (0.45 kilogram) of wool harvested from each sheep shorn with a machine rather than blades.
The first shearing machines appeared in New Zealand in the late 1880s, on stations such as Galloway in Otago, and Flaxbourne in Marlborough. They were originally driven by steam, often using a traction engine. Later, electricity made them more efficient and their use more widespread.
The development of machine-shearing technique was slow. The first machine shearers held the sheep firmly between their knees, just like the blade shearers. Jim Power, an Australian, is generally credited with inventing (in about 1905) the technique of lying the sheep down after completing the crutch and first hind leg area, for the ‘long blow’ up the back ‘from the breezer to the sneezer’.
George Stuart of Hawke’s Bay was one of the first to modify manufactured gear – a skill possessed by every modern shearer worth their salt. Bill Higgins, Bill Richards and other guns of the 1930s and 1940s also refined the art of shearing, which was then taken to a whole new plane by the Bowen brothers from Hawke’s Bay.
During and after the Second World War, brothers Ivan and Godfrey Bowen took the best of everything they had seen from shearers around New Zealand and developed the Bowen technique. This was a specific pattern of 55 blows with which to shear a fully grown, crossbred sheep. They used the non-shearing hand to flatten the sheep’s skin and produce an even fleece; and, whereas blade shearers would stretch the sheep out, Ivan’s idea was to crimp the sheep up to make it as small as possible, making less area to cover with the shearing handpiece. The pattern was further refined, with leading shearers such as John and David Fagan making notable contributions in recent years.
Another advance was the introduction of ‘wide gear’ and concave combs, which were 90–100-millimetres wide, compared with the old convex combs of the 1950s and early 1960s, which were no more than 60-millimetres wide. Today’s best shearers will get the fleece off a sheep in less than 50 blows.