Fourth-generation sheep shearer carries on her family’s tradition
Edith Kershner honors the heritage of her upbringing. Edie, who was born and raised in Montana, comes from a long line of sheep shearers. Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all sheared sheep, and now she’s continuing that family tradition from her farm in Searsport. She said of shearing, “It’s in my blood. I have two brothers and three sisters, and my dad taught all of us to shear except for my youngest sister because she was too little [at the time],” Edie said. “Now I’m the only one who shears regularly. My oldest brother will do it occasionally.”
She is not sure why she’s the only member of her household to keep the family’s heritage going, but she couldn’t live without it. “It’s a part of what makes me who I am. There are days that I’m like, ‘Why do I do this?’ but I can’t imagine life without sheep, and I can’t imagine my life without shearing,” she explained.
This fourth-generation sheep shearer got her start not only watching her dad shear, but also seeing him participate in sheep shearing competitions. “My dad was on a shearing crew at one point, and they had to shear a sheep in 3 minutes and 30 seconds in order to be on the crew,” she recalled. “He would go and compete in the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival every year, and my family would go, pack a picnic lunch, and cheer him on. It was a lot of fun.”
However, Edie admited that she herself would never qualify to be on a shearing crew. “As far as speed, I think the world record is 28 seconds, and that’s held by a guy from New Zealand, and that’s all he does,” she said. “For me, I can do your average sheep in five minutes. For professional shearers, that’s a little on the slow side.”
Simply put, shearing sheep is not easy. It’s a skill that takes time, practice, and the right equipment. “It’s not something you learn quickly. I stuck with it because I was too cheap to pay anyone else to shear my sheep,” she explained.
The other reason she kept at it was to pay for the new shears she bought. “I stopped into a lady’s place that had sheep and asked, ‘Are you looking for a shearer because I’m looking to shear?’ She was desperate to have someone shear her sheep because she was trying to do it herself. She had 50 of them at the time, so I got a lot of practice doing hers,” Edie said. “She started passing my name out, and I got a lot more practice.” Since sheep shearing is something that should be done at least once a year, there were plenty of additional opportunities for practice
Edie has kept her clippers going for 15 years, with more than a dozen sheep of her own to care for and also other people’s sheep to shear. But that’s not all she does. She also works as an oil delivery driver for Maine Fuels in Searsport. Both of her jobs are seasonal, which allows her the flexibility to bring one or more of her four young homeschooled sons with her.
“There’s only one seat in the truck. So, they will go with me one at a time and ride around. They love trucks and excavators,” she said. “I can take the kids with me to shear, and that’s hands-on-learning. My two oldest, Leland, who is 7, and Bridger, who is 6, will hold the sheep and I’ll shear them. And they like it.”
Over the years, Edie has participated in the Maine Fiber Frolic at the Windsor Fairgrounds and Sheep for a Cure, a nonprofit that raises funds for cancer research through the fiber arts. “The sheep I have are a dairy breed. They don’t have the greatest wool. I’m not a wool expert, but you have different classes of wool. You have a light wool. It’s maybe like an inch. It’s a short fiber and kind of rough. Then you have medium wool, which is a little longer, but not the nicest. It might be something beginners would use to spin, and that would be off the sheep I have. It’s not bad wool—it’s just not super nice. Then you’d have your nicer wools, which would be a long fiber. Your Romney and Lincoln [sheep] might have more of a longer fiber,” Edie explained.
When Edie’s father passed away, she kept on shearing, driven to keep his memory alive through the lessons and skills he shared with her. “I continued on. It was a pride thing. I’m the one who kept it going,” she said. “You know how people have an addiction to the sea? That’s what sheep shearing is for me. It’s my heritage. It’s a part of me. I feel that pull that is part of somebody, that morphs them into who they are. It’s made me stronger physically, and I’ve drawn a lot of life lessons from it.”
She hopes now, more than ever, her family’s long-standing tradition will continue to grow and that her boys will proudly become the fifth generation of sheep shearers in their family. “They’re still little,” she said. “But I certainly hope they pick it up as they get older and carry it on.”