Shear Elegance: Duckworth’s Modern Approach to a Classic Industry
It takes a lot to start any kind domestic manufacturing company these days, let alone one that works with local ranchers to produce and sew wool clothing. But Duckworth has figured it out. Through their Sheep-to-Shelf process, this Montana-based brand has been able to tackle three massive hurdles facing domestic textile production, all while maintaining their Wild West spirit of outdoor life and mountain sports along the way. From finding sheep ranchers and the highest quality Merino sheep, to getting yarn spun and garments sewn, each of these steps would be difficult on their own, but Duckworth has been able to solve these problems while growing in the process.
Through their growth, Duckworth not only continues to create high quality goods designed for an active life, but are at the same time demonstrating the possibility and potential of domestic textile production. We had chance to catch up with Rob Bernthal, co-founder of Duckworth, before their annual Shear and Shred event, where sheep shearing is turned into a three-day ranch party, to learn how the company got its start, the value of being based in Montana, as well as what the future holds in store.
Can you give us a quick backstory on Duckworth and how it got started?
In 2010 we spent a year in British Columbia. Life in the massive Kootenay region involves all aspects of a complete mountain life—waterways and huge alpine—people are dwarfed by the surrounding big lakes, rivers and peaks. We had time to think about the intersection between traditional outdoor life (hunt, fish, gather), mountain sport life (ski, ride, hike) and making things locally (food, clothes, construction/design). We had just completed two global merino wool projects and wondered why no company had been able to join all aspects of mountain life with a locally-sourced supply of wool and manufacturing.
We wondered if this could be done in the US. If there were enough domestic merino wool, if the entire supply-chain could be close to home and embrace real mountain values, self-reliance and Acta non Verba. When we returned home to Montana, we discovered the Helle family had a world-class supply of merino wool, right here in Montana and the juices started to flow… could we do this here in the USA.
You produce the wool and manufacture garments domestically. Are you trying to compete with larger brands, or more demonstrate that sustainable, domestic textile production is possible?
Yes, we are competing with the biggest in the world, and we want our product to be world class, but we’re not just trying to be a sentimental Made in USA company. It is possible and right now we are working on innovation within the US supply chain and technology.
There are probably a few other places where Duckworth could have landed, can you talk about how you ended up being based in Montana and what you like about that?
Actually, there is no other place this could have started. The best wool in the US has been growing in Montana since the 1880’s and the relationship between the land, the sheep and the uses are all born here. It might sound strange, but this could never have happened anywhere else. We are in daily contact with the ranch, the wool and life in the mountains. We build clothing for mountain life and how it is used for comfort, style and function.
There are actually many different species of sheep, each with their own wool qualities, but Merino seems to be usually known as the finest. For those who don’t know, what’s the difference between Merino and Rambouillet sheep?
The Rambouillet sheep is a French merino. It is bigger and hardier than the Aussie and Kiwi merino. It needs to survive in colder and tougher conditions, hence the insulation.
How long does it take a sheep to grow enough fleece before they are sheared? Do they produce the same quality of wool their entire lives or is there a prime fleece time?
The sheep are shorn once a year, in the spring, so they have the entire summer to grow the wool back and be ready for another cold winter. The quality stays pretty much the same, but it can vary slightly if it was a very cold or wet year.
Was it hard to find people locally who could still shear sheep? Is this a fading skill in the US?
We use a very talented crew of sheep shearers who travel the world shearing sheep, a nomadic existence for even the best shearers. There is also a sheep shearing school in South Dakota. They earn good money and the best shearers are valued… but yes, like all rural/agricultural work there are less and less young people getting into it.
What’s the dynamic like between the sheep and the dogs? Do you have any fun or memorable stories about their working relationship?
The sheep will not go anywhere without the guard dogs around. They protect the sheep and cohabitate in the craziest way. To bring 2,000 sheep out into a field you will need a guard dog to join them or they will not go. They just feel good around them. Aussie shepherds are essential for the herders and ranchers to move the sheep to water and along the trail when browsing for food. There are so many dog stories to tell, but we have used “fake” guard dogs to step in the role when the real guard dogs are too tired to stand up. Wherever there are dogs, there are going to be funny stories.
How much time do the office employees from Bozeman get to spend at the ranch and what do you think the close proximity between the two does to employee morale and their connection to the final products?
The office crew get out to help with the shearing two times a year, and we also all get together to ski, hunt, and hang out. It’s very important for both teams to be knowledgeable about the other side of the company.
Producing wool domestically is one thing, but to get it spun into yarn and sewn into clothing is a whole other challenge. Can you talk about what the Sheep-to-Shelf process is and how it came to life?
Almost all wool companies have the same fabrics, all made by the same two or three Asian suppliers. We start with the fiber, right off the sheep’s back, then sort the fibers at the ranch, each for a specific end use. This is the start of the Sheep-to-Shelf process. This assures the right fiber will be used for the best application in a fabric and of course a garment. The socks will use a different wool fiber than a tee shirt.
From there we spin many different yarns, and knit six custom-made fabrics unique to Duckworth. Starting with our wool DNA, the fabrics all feel and perform differently than the commodity fabrics bought off the shelf.
We also custom dye and finish each fabric, so it’s really a very boutique process, even though we produce thousands of yards of fabric. The sewing of the garments is the last step, and we work closely with the sewers to build the best clothes possible and find ways to develop the next generation of Duckworth gear.
How do you see Duckworth being able to scale into the future and grow, while remaining focused on conservation and land use?
The ranch has been growing wool for almost 100 years and selling the genetics to other wool growers around Montana and the West for about 40 years. Over the years we have been building relationships with other wool growers to improve the quality of the fibers, and the shearing and handling of the fleeces. One of the objectives of Duckworth as we grow is to begin to include other wool growers into a wool cooperative.
All these smaller operations will contribute to our quality wool clip and help us scale as we grow. We are not interested in the mega wool farm, but prefer many smaller, family-owned, community-oriented wool growing families to provide wool and knowledge for the long run. One of our main objectives is to help sustain the health of small wool growers and communities around the US, from wool growing to manufacturing quality products.