BOZEMAN — It takes about two minutes for a skilled shearer to separate a Rambouillet lamb from the fluffy coat that it has worn since the day it was born.
As yearling lambs queue up single-file, moving from a pen into a loading chute and up into a shearing trailer, Matt Mooney sits a lamb on its tail and goes to work on its belly and the area under its chin. After clipping those areas, he uses long, powerful strokes that stretch across the lamb’s flanks and back. The animal remains passive as clippers whir around its legs, neck and forehead.
The fleece drops to the floor in a single piece, the lamb hops through an exit at the rear of the trailer and joins other members of its band. Missing their nappy coats, the newly shorn animals resemble a squad of pale marine recruits on their first day of boot camp.
The fleece gets tossed onto a rotating metal table for a process called skirting. Lower quality wool, twigs and other debris are picked from amidst the fleece’s soft fibers. After a few minutes of picking and plucking, the fleece is loaded into a compactor where it’s pressed into a dense bale, ready to be sent for processing.
For more than a century, sheep shearing has been a spring ritual across Montana. The vast majority of that wool usually gets sent off to wholesalers where it is then sold on worldwide commodity markets.
But this particular operation, unfolding under a sun-dappled pasture near Logan in Gallatin County, represents a departure from a typical Montana sheep shearing. The wool from these lambs, all raised by the Dillon-based Helle Rambouillet Ranch, will be processed into yarn, fabric and finally woolen garments bearing the Duckworth label.
The American-made, performance-oriented woolen clothing is gaining a cult following among outdoor enthusiasts. Wool clipped in early June will show up on Bozeman-based Duckworth’s website, http://www.duckworthco.com/ and in about 75 specialty outdoor stores early next year.
Duckworth’s vertical integration concept is designed to help the owners extract more value from what many consider to be the finest wool in the world.
“People love the ‘American-made’ story,” said John Helle, co-founder of Duckworth. “Our sheep are a little different from other Rambouillets,” Helle said, grabbing a lamb’s coat. “See how long and nice it is.”
In early June Helle was warmly welcomed after he appeared on a panel about value-added agriculture products at the recent Montana Ag Summit. “People kept hounding me with questions on how we do things,” he said.
The idea behind value-added agriculture is to convert a minimally processed commodity into a finished product, or to highlight a product’s unique or superior traits instead of settling for the price that’s offered on traditional commodity markets. Grass-fed beef, organic lentils, honey and jams and jellies are just some of the products that Montana farmers and ranchers have introduced as interest sparks in locally produced products.
In addition to offering high-quality products, Duckworth’s owners have a bigger goal in mind. They see their homespun effort as a step toward reviving the U.S. textile industry, which has suffered severe contractions in recent decades. The National Council of Textile Organizations reports that 649 U.S. textile factories closed between 1997 and 2009. During that time equipment and manufacturing knowhow have been shifted to China and other low-wage countries.
“It’s a story of American self-reliance, the story of a four-generation Montana family and how to get more involved in the value chain. How do you take this raw material and convert it into performance wear?” said Robert “Bernie Bernthal, president and co-founder of Duckworth.
Members of the Helle family add their expertise at each step of the production process. John and his brother Tom raise the sheep. John’s son Evan oversees the process of converting raw wool into yarn and fabric. Younger son Wade, a student at Montana State University, works at MSU’s wool lab, which provides valuable research on how Duckworth can improve the quality of its wool.
Bernthal, a veteran of the textile industry and a branding specialist, had heard about the superior qualities of Helle-raised wool a few years ago after he had moved to Bozeman.
He called John Helle to talk about an idea for developing an American-made brand of woolen garments. It was the winter of 2013 and the two avid skiers agreed to meet at Maverick Mountain Ski Area near Dillon.
The way Bernthal tells it, Duckworth was formed by the time the two had completed their third ride on the chairlift.
“The timing was perfect,” Bernthal said. “There’s a great deal of interest in where things come from, and telling the story of sheep to shelf is unique because we actually grow and make it. We don’t outsource anything, and we’re not buying anything from China.”
Starting a made-in-America company presented a number of challenges. Not only is the domestic textile industry a shadow of its former self because jobs and equipment have been outsourced, much of the knowledge about how to manufacture woolen clothing has also gone by the wayside.
“There’s definitely not a lot of wool knowledge anymore. All of the world-class mills shifted to Asia, and with it the knowledge of how to do that. It was a real brain drain,” Bernthal said.
That’s where Graham Stewart comes in. Stewart, a Scotsman and long-time associate of Bernthal, provides essential expertise on manufacturing processes. Another partner is Jon Edwards, owner of Schnees, a Bozeman shoe and outdoor retailer.
The company name also has an interesting story.
“Graham and I worked with a guy named Duckworth in England,” Bernthal said. “A lot of wool heritage comes from England and Scotland. He was this mean old bastard who knew a lot about wool.”
Duckworth’s clothing has received favorable reviews in national outdoor publications, and sales have doubled in each year that Duckworth has been in business, Bernthal said. Despite praise lavished on the brand in Outside Magazine and other outdoor-oriented publications, Duckworth garments work just as well for people who feed livestock or split firewood for a living, Bernthal said.
On shearing day, Evan and Wade both skirted fleece and loaded the wool into the wool press. Evan also manages the manufacturing process, from when the wool is shorn until it’s spun and woven into fabric.
“We contract with about a dozen vendors,” most of them located in the southeast, he said. Another production manager oversees the process of turning fabric into clothing.
“It’s definitely rewarding when you get to take one product and turn it into a finished product," Evan Helle said.