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Montana Fleece - America’s Finest

04 March 2016

A chance meeting on a Montana ski lift was the beginning of an innovative new clothing company – Duckworth. When sheep rancher John Helle met outdoor clothing entrepreneur Robert Bernthal the idea to produce high quality performance clothing from Mr Helle’s flock of 10,000 French Merino Rambouillet was born, writes John Wilkes.

Duckworth clothing benefits from this wool fibre’s unique properties. Son Evan Helle explained: ”As our wool grows it’s exposed to a contrasting range of temperature and environment in Montana.

"This creates wool with plenty of crimp and character; giving it resistance to compression, lift and spring. This allows our knits to be blocky, trapping more air and having a lot of stretch that’s ideal for the outdoor and active-wear market.”

Based in Dillon, south west Montana, the largest US fine wool flock operation runs over 20,000 family owned acres and another 80,000 acres of additional leased grazing land.

The flock comprises 4,000 ewes and 6,000 rams. The extensive sales of pedigree breeding stock explain high ram numbers on the ranch.

The Rambouillet is considered a dual-purpose breed. Improving lamb carcass quality is still a goal, but with a superior fleece needed for Duckworth the emphasis has shifted to fibre.

Evan Helle

Evan’s father John commented: “We have always run fine wool sheep and wanted to carry value further down the chain. I’ve always been interested in how to capture some retail.”

John Helle explained the thinking behind vertical integration for their wool crop: “With the ups and downs in global commodity prices we looked to gain some stability through manufacture and retail.”

He added: “There are challenges in a realm of business we didn’t have expertise in, but we’re learning very quickly. Understanding who your customers are and their desires and needs is key.”

For over 30 years the Helles have been at the forefront of genetic improvement of fine-wool production in the US, electronically recording individual animal’s data to compare, contrast and better the flock.

However, in 2000 the Y2K computer virus destroyed all stored data. Undaunted, John Helle wrote his own program and began recording again. In 2010 Helle joined the American Sheep Industry Association’s National Sheep Improvement Program in using Estimated Breed Values (EBVs).

Australian Lambplan software was employed to analyse genetic potential against a breed baseline. Having 10 years of data ready to input proved a distinct advantage.

John Helle

Mr Helle said: “Today we have a huge database of some 12,000 lines of data 120 columns wide.” In addition, Australian MerinoSelect software is used to evaluate flock performance.

Genetic out-cross trials by Mr Helle using artificial insemination in his Rambouillet ewes with semen from 11 different types of Merino from across the world resulted in the genetics of the offspring being traceable to the sire’s flock of origin. This afforded comparison of EBV’s to Helle’s Rambouillet.

The results stacked up for the Montana flock. Mr Helle commented: “We have concentrated on the maternal side that grows high quality fleece in tight micron ranges, no higher than 21. It meant our quality was similar to these truer wool Merino crosses though we don’t quite produce the length and wool weight.”

Also adding: “But we do have bigger lamb crops with better growth characteristics, weaning weight and improved carcass.”

Mr Helle’s ewes lamb in March, April and May in tightly controlled batches enabling optimum labour usage on the ranch. The majority of the flock is shorn during a break in lambing after 10 April with a final 40-day lambing period after shearing in late April.

Twelve-month-old lambs clip 3-4kg of fleece and older sheep yield 4-5kg. Meticulous care is taken handling the wool.

Fleece is hand assessed with fibre diameter measured using an optical fiber diameter analyser belonging to Montana State University’s Wool Lab acquired with Mr Helle help. Evan Helle commented: “We’re known to argue with technology; there’s a handle to our fleece it can’t recognise.”

Wool is broken down into three categories based on fibre measurement; 21 microns, 20 microns fine comfort line and premium AAA finer than 19 microns. The wool is scrutinised by Helle’s three business partners’ whose expertise range from raw material and processing to the finished retail ready garment.

Mr Helle’s partner Graham Stewart, a global textile expert deals with technical manufacturing issues. Robert Bernthal has much experience in marketing, promotion and brand development having worked with outdoor clothing companies in Australia and Europe. Jon Edwards contributes retail understanding derived from his outdoor clothing store in Bozeman, Montana.

Graded fibre is shipped to Chargeurs Wool USA in Jamestown, South Carolina for scouring and combing, turning it into top, the finest wool with the longest fibres. Chargeurs Wool USA is now the only US company offering this necessary stage in the manufacturing process.

Since the decline of the US wool industry, Chargeur’s has benefitted by The Berry Amendment - US government legislation requiring defense procurement to come from domestic sources in order to afford American wool manufacturers the opportunity to supply the US military.

The next step, spinning the wool into yarn is done in North Carolina and Rhode Island. It is then knitted and finished in North Carolina.

Evan Helle added: “Issues with dyes, pH, heat and pressures for setting and finishing fabric are very complex. Graham Stewart’s expertise has sorted this out. Given the size of the runs factories require it’s very easy to make mistakes we simply can’t afford.”

Growing success means growing more wool. By 2017 Duckworth will need to outsource extra raw material. Mr Helle is speaking with buyers of their pedigree Rambouillet stock for viable partners with similar production systems.

Duckworth now commands a considerable following from those interested in high performance wool clothing that has a genuine story. Duckworth’s story is reinforced by its promotional material – photography shot on its Big Sky country ranch with the tagline, Grown-spun-knit-sown in the USA. Duckworth’s clothing is gaining momentum in the competitive US outdoor active wear market.

Evan Helle concluded: “Wearing wool has kept people alive for thousands of years. We’ve embraced its natural qualities and improved comfort levels.”

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.