July 13, 2008

The Big Experiment!

Wool production is one of the reasons that I’m keeping ouessant sheep. Of course, there are other reasons too! But being able to produce a beautiful fleece is essential for me. Needless to say, you can imagine my disappointment this spring when I sheared Cappuccino, a yearling ewe.

From all appearances, she had a beautiful fleece : black wool with brown tips.

Cappuccino this spring with her ewe lamb, Expresso.

But when I sheared her, I found “layers” of vegetable matter deep inside her fleece. I’m not sure how this happened. I bought her in January, so I’m guessing that this was already there when I bought her. Certainly none of my other sheep had this amount of vegetable matter. Unfortunately, this fleece ended up in the compost bin.
Cappuccino : Layers of vegetable matter in fleece.

After such a sad experience, I decided to look at the possibilities of putting covers on my sheep in order to produce premium quality fleeces to spin. I did a fair amount of research and discovered that a lot of people cover their sheep. Studies of large commercial flock have been made which demonstrate the value of covering sheep : everything from increased wool quantity and quality to surprising health benefits, including significant reduction of fly-strike. I also learned that not all sheep covers are created equal. It is important to use a nylon cover that is waterproof, tear-proof, and breathable. Cotton canvas covers are to be avoided as they cause all sorts of problems. Additionally, the covers must fit correctly.
After speaking with a number of breeders in the States who cover their sheep, I decided that I wanted to try covering my ouessant sheep. The majority of breeders agreed that Matilda Sheep Covers were the very best covers available. So I ordered some of their smallest covers for my flock. Unfortunately, even the smallest covers are too big for ouessant sheep. So I’ve had to alter the covers a bit. Here’s a picture taken earlier this year. Three sheep in covers and one lamb without a cover.
Cappuccino, Rhum Raisin and 'TitBijou in their Mitilda Sheep Covers!

There are a couple of things to note in this photo. First, you can see how I’ve used elasticators to cinch in the coats. I’ve now resorted to sewing a seam to shorten the coats. This photo was taken right after I sheared and coated Cappuccino. Note how much cleaner and whiter her coat is than the other coats!! This shows you just how dirty the fleeces can get. And we’re not even talking about vegetable matter either!
Cappuccino : A peek at the clean black fleece under the cover!

This picture was taken just a few days ago.
Beautiful jet black, pristine, and no vegetable matter!
The first few weeks the sheep were covered, I would keep looking under the covers to make sure that everything was going as it should. When it rained, they stayed dry. The fleece was beautifully “conditioned” : not only do the tips not bleach, they don’t dry out and wear. The fleece is “moisturized” and “conditioned” by the lanolin. I am so looking forward to spinning these fleeces next year!
Additionally, the sheep don’t seem to mind the covers at all.
So this is the ongoing experiment. So far, so good! I’m very encouraged with what I’m seeing. Of course, it does require a bit of extra work .... but I think the end results (beautiful, pristine fleeces!) will be more than worth the effort!
***more updates and photos to come***

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