About sheep coats

Since we coat our sheep beginning at birth, we must keep a wide assortment of sizes of sheep coats available in our inventory

Since we coat our sheep from birth, we keep a wide assortment of sizes in our inventory, as you can see in this photo of the ewe/lamb flock around the creep house in spring 2015

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.

A sample of one of our coats with the new no-sew elastic repair

A sample of one of our coats with the new no-sew elastic repair

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!

 

 

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13 Comments

  • Erika says:

    Thanks for the very timely, to me at least, post about sheep coats. I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my first order of coats and your post reinforces my plan and also gives some good info on keeping the coats in good condition.

    • Dee says:

      Please know that repairing some of the things that happen to coats can be a bit tricky. If you would like more info, please let me know via private email (or use the form on this site) and I can send you photos of some of my repairs that keep our coats working for many years!

  • Bev says:

    I can tell you that from a spinner’s perspective, I truly appreciate getting a covered/coated fleece!

  • Jean doherty says:

    I am a very small holding up in the western isles the textile ram we have caught Fluke in January the medication he received from the vet resulted on him losing all his wool he goes out to graze in the morning but housed at night time
    I am wondering if you could me idea what best to wear on this ram

    • Dee says:

      Depending on your temperatures during the day – and whether those temperatures include cold rain or not – will determine whether your ram will need additional protection. Sheep adapt pretty quickly to being without wool – and it is likely that the loss of wool was actually the result of the flukes rather than the medication. My guess is that the wool will take a while to come back, but it should begin to fill in soon. If there is no wool at all, you will want to provide a coat (patterns online or you can also purchase coats online after you measure your ram) for cold, wet weather. If your weather isn’t wet, just make sure he has plenty of forage to eat – it will heat him from the inside! Good luck!

  • Clare says:

    Was just talking to someone having trouble with too much vegetable matter in her fleeces and I suggested coats. She’s concerned with her sheep overheating. Have you ever had issues with coated sheep overheating?

    • Dee says:

      This was a strong concern of mine at first, too. Sheep do not release heat in the same way as human beings – we sweat and require the evaporation of that sweat to cool our bodies. Cooling in this way would be incredibly inefficient for sheep because of their heavy wool coverage. They instead release heat through their ears, feet, flanks (which usually have very little wool), and panting.

      Years ago, we coated exactly half of the flock during our hot Iowa summer and then studied how their grazing behaviors compared to the uncoated sheep. We discovered that the white coated sheep where no hotter than their uncoated counterparts, spending the same amount of time grazing, drinking water, and lying in the shade. The colored sheep, however, were much cooler in the coats, spending less time in the shade. They grazed more and drank less water – and seemed much more comfortable. The difference was so dramatic that we cut our study short because we felt so sorry for the uncoated sheep. We used white Matilda coats for our study (they now come in silver, but I’m finding that their thermal properties are similar to the white), and I think they must reflect the sun’s heat, making the colored sheep cooler.

      Please let your friend know that I am happy to answer any questions about coating – she can give me a call or shoot me an email!

  • Patty says:

    GREAT! write up on sheep coats. I live in Vermont and recently started making sheep coats after mending for several of my shepherd friends. I use shock cord and a cord lock at the rear so the coats can be cinched up for a better fit. I also include reinforcements at the neck. Thank you for telling people about your experience with coating sheep.

    • Dee says:

      Thanks, Patty! We’ve used coats for many years, and after a while, you come up with all kinds of improvements based on issues within the flock. What fabric do you use?

  • Kathy D. says:

    Can you tell me where you get your coats? I’m a teacher with 2 Navajo Churro sheep at our school (mama & daughter). There are so many different styles and places to buy coats, I’d like to know which styles you like best and why. Thanks!

    • Dee says:

      Hi, Kathy! Good question! We used to use two types (Rocky by Rocky Sheep Company and Matilda, which is sold by Sheepman Supply), and they are usually pretty similar in price with each being a bit more expensive when they raise their price, and then the other company does the same and becomes the more expensive option. After many years of using both, I have ended up gravitating the entire flock into the Matilda coats for one basic reason: fit. The Matilda coats have four pieces of elastic that allow you to fit the coat looser in the beginning and then the elastic stretches as the sheep grows. This means that I can then use the same coat for longer, requiring less sizes and coat changes. They don’t come in the teeny-tiny sizes that you can get from Rocky, so we still use the Rocky coats for the very small sizes (like size 19), but switch once they are a bit bigger and can fit into the smallest Matilda coat. The disadvantage of the Matilda coats is the same as the advantage: the elastic. I have now figured out how to replace the elastic with a no-sew alternative (contact me if you want details on how to do this), so it is less of a chore now. Also, the Matilda coats are not nearly as well made when it comes to the seams – they are sewn in China, and I find myself repairing many of the seams shortly after I first put them on the sheep. Yet once these initial “repairs” are done, I find that they wear well and last for many, many years. I still have some of the original coats that we bought way back in 2003 and 2004 – I know this because he used a different fabric back then. If you decide to go with the American made Rocky coats, be aware that if your fleeces are on the finer end, you will want to get the thinner coats rather than the heavy-duty ones. Otherwise, the coats can cot or felt the tips. Please let me know if you have other questions – or contact me personally and I can fill you in on how to measure, the conversion between the two types, etc. Good luck!

  • Rebekah Long says:

    When you measure a shorn sheep for coat size, is there a rule of thumb to help select the next 3 larger sizes that sheep will need?
    How much larger should each coat be?

    • Dee says:

      Hi, Rebekah! A lot will depend on the type of breed that you keep, since size is both body and fleece dependent – and probably age, too, if you have a lamb or a yearling that is still growing. If you buy coats, then buy the size that fits at shearing (which, in our flock, is generally either a Matilda D36 or E40) plus the next one or two. Each next size is about 2-4″ bigger than the last (Matilda skips up to 4″ since they use elastic to keep them fitting well when they are big – Rocky goes every 2″), and our Romneys, who put on as much as 8″ in a year, will need two additional sizes – and the Romeldales usually one additional size or two if they usually have big twins, triplets or quads. If you are making coats, it will depend on whether you are using darts or elastic to get the correct fit – with elastic, you will need less coats, and with darts, probably more. Feel free to ask away – or email me privately if you don’t want to post your questions here. I am happy to help!

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