All of our sheep wear coats or covers to protect their wool from contaminants and weathering. Since we put on their very first coats at birth and then change them as they grow, we have a huge number of these covers in the barn. When I took an inventory recently, I discovered that between those on our sheep and the those in the barn storage bins, we had over three hundred coats from three different manufacturers.
Now, even though I inventoried the coats recently, there is no way to know exactly how many we have today. I am constantly changing out coats on sheep who have either outgrown or damaged the one they were wearing. Once it comes off, it is washed, dried, and inspected. Any coats that are in such terrible condition that they cannot be salvaged end up either thrown in the trash (less than a half dozen each year) or kept for patches. This means that the exact number of coats at any one time fluctuates as some are thrown away and others are purchased as needed.
We bought our first coats in 2001 after our first shearing. The fleeces of our three sheep were horrible that year: terribly contaminated with vegetation and dirt due to our flock lying in dirt patches in the fields. It took me dozens of hours per fleece to clean them to the point where I felt they could be sold. I knew there had to be a better way of producing high-quality fleece, so I went looking for advice. In the process, I discovered sheep coats or covers, and we’ve been using them ever since.
Many shepherds ask how I can keep all of our sheep coated — doesn’t it take a lot of time? Honestly, I think it takes much more time to try to clean up a contaminated fleece than it does to keep the sheep in a coat all year long — at least this is true in our environment! Since our lambs are coated at birth and go through at least six or seven sizes in the first few months, they soon learn that if they cooperate with the coat change, they will be on their way in moments. Our adults are usually quite content to let me do what I have to do, and I can often change an adult coat without any help. If I have a lot of coats to change, I get someone to help catch and hold the sheep while I change the coats. It usually doesn’t take more than half an hour to change dozens of coats under these circumstances, and a single coat change takes me only a minute or two.
I think the most labor-intensive part of coating sheep is washing and mending the used covers once they have been removed. I clean them in our washer (delicate cycle, using liquid dish soap instead of detergent) and then inspect them for damage and wear once they are dry. If there is no repair needed, I simply label them with permanent marker (in big numbers on the center of the back, so that I know which size I need for that sheep from a distance) and fold them to go back out to the bins in the barn.
In past years, over half of the coats going through the laundry would need some form of repair: either mending of tears, stitching of darts, or replacement of elastic. At first, I could only mend about two or three coats in an hour, as I tried to figure out how to stitch each particular problem and return the coat to service. Once I gained some experience with mending, however, the process sped up. Now that I’ve tackled pretty much any type of repair my flock can throw at me, I can mend six to eight coats in an hour, and the to-mend pile disappears very quickly.
About a year ago, I realized that if I replaced the standard elastic with elasticized shock cord (like that used for bungee cords, but thinner – see photo on left), the elastic lasted much longer and was a no-sew repair — something I could easily do in front of the TV or on the phone. Now that many of our coats have been repaired in this way, the number of necessary repairs have dramatically dropped. My guess is that I now repair or mend only about 25-30% of the coats coming through the laundry — and that number continues to drop as more and more coats include shock cord.
Mending is a critically important aspect of coating sheep, since coats can be a relatively expensive investment. An adult sheep cover costs about $30-35, and every adult will wear two to four different sizes in any given year. You can see that this becomes quite a costly venture very quickly. Thankfully, most of our new coats will last a very long time. Many of the coats I currently own are those we purchased between 2001 and 2005. They are heavily mended, but they still serve their purpose, protecting the fleece from contaminants and weathering.
Whether to coat sheep to protect their fleece is something that every wool producer must decide as they try to balance time and cost constraints. For us, the benefits of coating the flock far outweigh any downside, and our wool is all the cleaner for it. I honestly can’t imagine doing it any other way!