Shorn in the USA
In the late winter days, before shearing starts, John Helle drives his four-wheeler across the rutted dirt roads of his ranch, checking on his herds of sheep, guiding them closer to the barns. Dressed in dirty jeans, rubber boots, a wool-lined jacket, and a wool hat with earflaps, the 51-year-old looks like the quintessential rancher as he runs some 10,000 sheep across the range—100 square miles just outside the town of Dillon, in southwest Montana, on the edge of the wind-scoured Gravelly Range.
Ever since 1942, when Helle’s grandfather bought the land for two cents an acre, the Helles have been ranching sheep here. For decades, the family sold the wool they sheared to brokers, who mixed it with lower-quality wool for carpeting and military uniforms. Helle never saw a finished product, and it frustrated him not to know where that wool, so painstakingly cultivated by his family, wound up. “All the hard work you put into raising your livestock—you tend to lose that in the commodity world,” he says. “It goes into a bin, then into a railroad car, then you don’t know where it goes.”
In 2013, Helle had an idea. He’d start a company making great outdoor clothing—base layers, socks, sweaters, scarves, jackets—all with wool from his own flock, wool that he’d have processed and sewn in America. The front office would be in Bozeman, Montana, 115 miles to the northeast. He’d call it Duckworth, an old family name from his mother’s side. A year later, with five employees, he launched what was then the only wool company whose entire supply chain was within the U.S.
“This is the epitome of modern farming,” says Helle’s business partner, Robert Bernthal, a 30-year veteran of the outdoor apparel business. “We’re making modern, technical, functional garments with a commodity that’s been walking the hills of the U.S. for hundreds of years.” Before he met Helle, Bernthal, 55, had been running a merino base layer company out of Bozeman that sourced its wool from New Zealand sheep and produced its gear in Malaysia. “It was a cumbersome, volatile, unpredictable supply chain with no transparency,” he says. When the company foundered, in 2012, a friend told him Helle was making some of the country’s best fine merino wool just on the other side of the Gravelly Range. Soon they were skiing nearby Maverick Mountain together. “Three chairlift rides later,” Bernthal recalls, “we formed Duckworth.”
The mountaintop birth was appropriate. In the early days of mountaineering and for many years after, wool layers were the standard—Edmund Hillary was swathed in wool when he summited Everest. But the fabric fell out of fashion in the ’70s, when Malden Mills, a New Hampshire textile-maker, developed synthetic “polar” fleece, which The North Face and Patagonia made all the rage in the ’80s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that the development of merino—less itchy and bulky than normal wool yet inherently breathable and warm—brought the fabric back.
First bred in north central Spain’s Castile region, merino sheep were sold by Spanish King Charles III in 1764 to his cousin, King Louis XVI of France, who established a merino stud at his royal farm at Rambouillet, southwest of Paris. There they were bred with larger English sheep with longer fibers, creating a new breed of merino that eventually made their way to New Zealand and Australia, where most merino is now sourced, and to the American West, where half of all sheep are Rambouillet.
Helle, a sheep geneticist with a degree in range science from Montana State University, prides himself as an obsessive land steward. “Healthy lands make healthy sheep make healthy wool,” he says, adding that he pays meticulous attention to his sheep’s behavior on the ranch. He knows, for instance, that they prefer to eat Montana’s native bluebunch wheatgrass and that they hide in narrow leeward gullies when it’s windy. Helle examines the wool’s properties—its curvature, variability, and fineness—under a microscope built for fibers. The range’s harsh climate and thin mountain air (the pastures are between 5,000 and 9,500 feet in elevation) have made for wavier, crimpier wool than Australian merino—and warmer and more durable fabric. When Helle finds the sheep with the coats he wants, he mates them. “It’s all a science passed down through generations,” he says.
To find factories for the processing and the production of the wool, Bernthal hired a textile expert in North Carolina, the shrunken heart of America’s textile industry. It was three times as expensive to process the wool in the U.S. than it would have been in Malaysia, Bernthal says, but he figured the money they saved on shipping would make up for it. The timing was good. In 2011, Congress passed an extension to the Berry Amendment, mandating that all American military apparel be made in the U.S. “It’s been quite a movement—the buy-American thing,” Helle says.
To capitalize on the new market, in 2012 the American Sheep Industry Association bought an $800,000 “superwash” system, which makes wool machine-washable, and installed it at Chargeurs Wool, the last textile factory in Jamestown, South Carolina, a town once crowded with mills. “Before this,” says Lisa Surber PhD., a research scientist at the American Sheep Industry Association, “it would take three to six months to get wool back from foreign systems. Now, that time is cut in half.”
From Chargeurs, where it’s also spun and woven, the wool is shipped to Mount Airy, North Carolina, where it’s cut and sewn into clothes. “We’re using the old bones of the U.S. cotton industry,” says Bernthal, adding that between the Dillon ranch, the Bozeman office, and the mills in the Southeast, Duckworth has created more than 100 jobs.
Sales have kept pace, doubling every year, and Duckworth has gained a cult following in the outdoor industry. Jon Edwards, president of Bozeman outdoor store Schnee’s, and a stakeholder in Duckworth, says his customers are “pretty well educated when it comes to wool, and Duckworth stands out to people who like the story behind it.”
The story of American wool is now only growing. Farm to Feet, a wool sock company that uses the same factory as Duckworth in Mount Airy, North Carolina, sprang up soon after Duckworth; outdoor behemoths like Patagonia are now sourcing wool from Oregon and Utah; and wool-processing plants that have been shuttered for decades, like Northern Woolen Mills, in Minnesota, are opening their doors again. Not only is wool being produced in the U.S., it’s also increasingly finding an American market: In 2007, according to the American Sheep Industry Association, 70 percent of American wool was exported. Today, only half is.
For Duckworth, demand is now outstripping supply, forcing Helle to breed a bigger flock. Bernthal, for his part, says it’s the right time to expand. “We started in ski and outdoor, and now we’re seeing real fashion people coming and asking about our fibers,” he says, adding that a New York designer is using their Rambouillet to make $1,000 wool jackets.
Manhattan’s Garment District is a far cry from the sheep-studded Gravelly Range, but Bernthal says the appeal of the finished product is the same: knowing the origin of your clothes and wanting to be a part of reviving the American economy, from textile factories to mountain ranches. “It keeps people home,” he says. “It ensures our land is kept open.” With that, he looks out at the ranch and the mountains beyond. The silence is broken only by the bleating of a sheep.