Eighteen months ago, Maxi Armistead reached a point during most days when the tears would start flowing and she couldn’t hide the physical and mental toll of trying to shear a procession of heavy, fleece-laden sheep. 

The fact that she didn’t give up is testament to her determination to overcome the difficulties of her early days in the male-dominated industry.

“The start was very, very tough,” she said.

Now able to shear more than 300 sheep in a day, Ms Armistead is among a growing influx of women embarking on careers in one of the toughest jobs in the country.

And that’s good news for an industry that has struggled to attract new entrants in recent years, but Ms Armistead admits that at times it wasn’t easy being the only female in the shed.

“It’s very different for girls. I think mentally, there’s a lot to take in and I would cry a lot,” she said.

“I worked with all boys and they did not understand, they just said, ‘You’re not going to make it, you cry too much’.”

Tasmanian shearer Emily Spencer has a best tally of 340 sheep in a day.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

But she persisted and was determined to prove her detractors wrong.

“I shore 100, then I shore 200, and now I’ve shorn 300 and I can keep up with the boys in the shed, which is really cool,” she said.

For Ms Armistead, shearing isn’t just a job now, it’s a way of life.

“Some people count sheep to go to sleep, I shear a sheep in my head,” she said.

“I’m just obsessed with shearing, it’s my whole life, it’s everything.”

The shearing masterclass was held at AJ and PA McBride’s imposing 12-stand shearing shed at Telopea Downs, in far western Victoria. (ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

Women take to the stands

The passion, skill and physical prowess of some of the best young female shearers in Australia were on show at a shearing masterclass in far western Victoria this week.

Ms Armistead was one of the 16 female shearers who made their way to the imposing 12-stand shearing shed at Telopea Downs.

Sixteen young female shearers from all over the country honed their craft at a masterclass in western Victoria recently. (Supplied: Sol Media)

And along with a refreshing gust of enthusiasm, women like Ms Armistead are bringing a new approach to shearing that veterans of the industry say is improving some techniques that men have been using for decades.

Teaching the blokes new tricks

Glenn Haynes organised the workshop in his role as executive officer with the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia’s Shearer Woolhandler Training Inc.

He said while there had been plenty of women working in shearing sheds as woolhandlers since the early 1990s, it was during COVID-induced shearer shortages that women really got the chance to take up shearing.

Glenn Haynes says men have a lot to learn from female shearers.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

“We’ve got a really good group of exceptional shearers coming through and we just wanted to support them and give them a bit of inspiration,” he said.

Mr Haynes said women were easy to teach and were also showing veteran male shearers different ways of doing things. 

Sigourney Williams was a picture of concentration as she peeled off another fleece. (Supplied: Sol Media)

“A lot of the girls are more worried about the job they’re doing than chasing the bloke in front of them or what the guy behind them is doing,” he said.

“There’s no denying it’s an extremely physical job and it can be quite taxing on your body, and as trainers we’ve learnt a lot over the past couple of years watching these girls balance sheep, the way they walk around a sheep.

“The 16 girls we’ve got here, they’re just so excited, yakking to each other and building networks. The future looks pretty good.”

Learning from the best of the best

One of the big drawcards of the booked-out workshop was the presence of gun Kiwi shearer Catherine Mullooly, who in January smashed the women’s eight-hour strongwool-ewe-shearing record.

She said women’s shearing had come a long way since she did her first shearing school 13 years ago.

Tarryn Wilde refines her craft under the watchful eye of gun Kiwi shearer Catherine Mullooly.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

“It was really hard to get on a stand then, so it’s so cool to see so many women here and see how far it’s come even in the past five years,” she said.

“These women are awesome. They’ve got great attitudes and they’re soaking it all up.”

Sixteen young women were transfixed as expert shearer Catherine Mullooly stepped them through her technique.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

Ms Mullooly said shearing was as much a mental challenge as it was a physical one.

“If you tell yourself you’re not this and that, that’s what you’ll believe, but if you tell yourself you can do something, you’ll do it,” she said.

“And the shearing industry is for anyone from any walk of life.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from or how many sheep you can shear, as long as you work hard, people will respect you.”

Gun shearer Catherine Mullooly instructs Tarryn Wilde in the finer points of the craft.(Supplied: Sol Media)

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