Way out here in the middle of southwestern Wyoming, a massive operation is under way. Sheep rancher Jon Child—plus two of his sons, their wives, and their children—create a ruckus. It’s shearing day. By sundown, some 1,100 Merino Rambouillet sheep will have been liberated from their fleeces.
Those sheep include 150 owned by the Child's friend and neighbor, third-generation rancher Fred Roberts. He’s here, plus a second- and third-generation father-son sheep shearing team from Idaho, who travel ranch to ranch around the West with 20 highly skilled Uruguayan shearers.
Every last Child—including Jon’s sister-in-law, his brother-in-law, and an eleven-year-old niece—rouse the sheep from a corral into an upward-sloping chute. The chute leads to “the plant,” a 40-foot-long by 8-foot-wide mobile building on a trailer. The sheep, several hundred strong, including many ewes about to give birth, bleat and stomp and fart alfalfa gas as they hoof nose-to-butt up the chute and into the shed.
Once inside, a ropey South American drops a gate. When he does, the sheep trip into the shearing stand. The Uruguayans—all with years of shearing experience—gently maneuver the sheep onto their hind quarters, where they will be most comfortable—especially the pregnant ones—for the five or so minutes it will take to relieve them of their bushy winter coats.
They sit complacently—like big puppies—awaiting their summer haircuts. The Uruguayans, rarely inflicting more than a minor cut, start at the belly and work their way across the body, removing a 10-pound wooly “fleece” from each animal. It’s thick, warm, and coated in lanolin (oil secreted by sheep’s sebaceous glands). And because of where, how, and by whom this wool is raised, it could be the best fiber for your performance baselayers and socks.
At the moment, just a small number of outdoor companies use wool sourced in the Rocky Mountains. But that’s set to change as consumers learn more about this uniquely American industry.
Larry Prager, a veteran wool buyer from South Dakota, says, “All someone needs to do is slip on a pair of fine-gauge, American Rambouillet wool socks to feel the superiority of the fiber. Wearing wool feels like a luxury, and it has great performance. It’s a little spendier, but not really. And you’ve got an economy in which everyone wins—American sheep, the consumer, and America."
Behind the scenes on sheep-shearing day
The shearing leg of the chain is what I’ve come to Wyoming to witness. Shearing is a loud, chaotic process. A sheep goes into the plant, gets an Uruguayan shave, and pops out a door that leads to another corral.
With their new haircuts, the freshly shorn sheep look homelier than they did in their fluffy wool coats. But their bleats haven’t changed, making me think they could care less about their tight new crewcuts. It’s hot in the early May sun, and shearing cleans the sheep, cools them, and increases their mobility. In a few days, the pregnant ewes will drop lambs, restarting the cycle, while their fleeces continue the long journey from yawning, sagebrush-studded wolf country to those socks currently hugging your feet.
New Zealand isn’t the only producer of Merino wool
Shocker alert: New Zealand Merino might be the darling of the outdoor industry but it’s far from the only source of Merino wool on earth. In fact, the American West is teeming with Merino sheep. Some, originating in France, have a tricky name. Rambouillets arrived in America in the 1840s. Their wool, says Rita Samuelson of the American Wool Council, is just like Merino wool from New Zealand. It’s soft and supple, with a fine micron (fiber). “People think we don’t have Merino in the U.S.,” she says. “It needs saying, because we do.”
New Zealand Merino burst onto the scene in the 1990s, when select companies, like Smartwool, began launching it to prominence. Woolrich, of course, had used rag wool (coarser, scratchier) since 1830; Fox River since 1900; Wigwam since 1905; and Pendleton since 1909. “In fact, anybody making wool garments in the outdoor industry in the 1980s and 90s was using American wool,” says Jim Heirs, sales manager at Chargeurs wool cleaning and processing company in South Carolina. “They just didn’t promote it.”
But Smartwool took New Zealand Merino, with its soft, buttery, high-performance qualities, to new heights. “It took a while to catch on, because synthetics (in clothing) had also come on strong, and as amazing as wool is, people were a bit skeptical,” says Molly Cuffe, Smartwool’s director of global communications. “But Merino has always been our fiber of choice, because we found that it works best with the body’s natural heating and cooling cycle.”
"You’ve got an economy in which everyone wins—American sheep, the consumer, and America," says Larry Prager, a veteran wool buyer from South Dakota.
Soon select other companies, including Icebreaker and Ibex were using Merino in socks and other outdoor garments. Nearly all of these brands sourced wool from outside of the U.S.
Why, if a vibrant sheep economy exists right here in the homeland?
Samuelson says it’s complicated. In the late 90s, the North American Free Trade Agreement outsourced thousands of American textile jobs to foreign countries. The U.S. had an abundance of wool, and manufacturers couldn’t use it all. At the same time, some foreign countries were “very aggressive in the wool market,” says Samuelson. And finally, even when we did manufacture fine wool garments, the U.S. lacked a key piece of the puzzle: a wool washing and shrink-treat machine to process it in a way that made it both highly usable and consumer friendly.
Ranchers in the heart of the Rocky Mountain range have been breeding their Rambouillets for decades. The sheep thrive in “open range grasslands, in drier environments, from Utah and South Dakota clear to northern Montana,” says Prager. They’re bigger boned than Australian Merinos, which, Prager adds, plays well for American ranchers. Plain truth: Few, if any, ranchers raise sheep just for wool. “They definitely make more money on lamb,” says The American Sheep Industry Association’s Christa Rochford.
“Australia and New Zealand also have dual-purpose production,” says Samuelson, for the simple fact that “the income from wool cannot cover the cost of production.” But, she adds, sustainability is not a concern because “even if demand for wool increased by 60 percent in the next year, we have more than enough supply to meet the demand.”
Western ranchers raise roughly one-fifth of all sheep grown in the U.S. Fifty-five percent of American wool is exported, 20 percent goes into U.S. military clothing, and the rest ends up in domestic products.
A few select performance sock companies started using it in late 1990s; a few select clothing companies followed. VOORMI sources its wool from sheep raised between northern New Mexico and northern Montana; Duckworth raises its own French Rambouillet breed on a 20,000-acre ranch owned by the company’s founder John Helle near Bozeman, Montana. Prager says, “As consumers, we like to buy American. In outdoor clothing, with wool, we have the perfect option.”
Helle’s son Evan explains why in a story on sheepsite.com: “As our wool grows it’s exposed to a contrasting range of temperature and environment… This creates wool with plenty of crimp and character; giving it resistance to compression… It 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.”
He told me that on his ranch, they have a machine that tests each and every fleece, determining which garment it’ll best suit. “Sometimes one sheep is good for socks, and the next sheep is good for base layers,” he said. “We can get the perfect wool for the perfect yarn for the perfect garment.”
American ranchers face huge challenges
Sheep ranching is a 24/7 job, 365 days a year. A sheep in the Rocky Mountain west is a sitting…sheep. Think predators. Lots of them. Coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, other cats. Because of the way the sheep are raised — free-range in the outdoors with predators lurking— a herder has to be with them at all times. Jon Child Jon Child says there once were 250,000 sheep on the Rock Springs lease in Wyoming, where his sheep winter; now there are 50,000. Duckworth’s President Robert Bernthal says there were once 6 million sheep in Montana alone; now there are 250,000. Samuelson blames the loss of lambs on coyotes. “They’ve cost ranchers a lot of business,” she says.
Lifelong ranching veteran Roberts adds wolves, reintroduced in Yellowstone, to the equation. They regularly cruise his and Jon Child’s grazing allotments. But Roberts agrees coyotes are the worst. “They’ll go on a killing spree, targeting the young. It’s especially bad when the adults are teaching their pups to hunt,” he says. Both men think the state could do more to control predators, which would save sheep and help ranchers.
Child says he faces a constant struggle to keep the BLM and USFS from “shrinking” his grazing allotments, due to pressure from wildlife organizations claiming that domestic sheep pass disease to wild sheep. This is a long, ongoing debate. Kevin Hurley of The Wild Sheep Foundation says several studies show that domestic sheep transfer pathogens to wild sheep, but Chase Adams of the ASI says wild sheep loss is not so easily explained and more research is still needed.
Another factor is labor retention. During the Obama administration, it was harder to keep workers, say both Roberts and Child. Their hired help, including Australians, Peruvians, and Mexicans, cost them between $32,000 and $40,000 per year, per worker (with airfare, visas, living expenses, and wages), and not infrequently, the workers would “jump” from a job after they “figured out the American system,” says Child.
Obama made it hard to deport AWOL workers, while the Trump administration’s stricter immigration rules make it easier, he says. “This was the first time in 40 years of ranching that I ever saw workers pay attention to a U.S. election.” Since January, no one has jumped.
Even without the pressure from activists and the labor struggles, raising sheep is no picnic. An agrarian lifestyle, especially one involving grazing animals, is just plain exhausting on the body, spirit, and wallet. “People aren’t begging for these jobs,” says Child. “Few Americans will come out and do the work. It’s physically taxing. You’re secluded. And the health of your sheep depends on so many things, like the feed that’s available and the weather.”
But the outdoor industry’s recent burgeoning interest in American-grown wool has the ranchers who raise it, from Child and Roberts to Helle, who has the only source-verified wool in the world, feeling optimistic.
Currently, Duckworth is the sole American apparel company using wool that can be traced back to specific sheep. Other companies using western-grown wool—VOORMI, Farm to Feet, Darn Tough, Fox River—get theirs from a pool of ranches. It’s trucked to distribution warehouses in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, or South Dakota, where it’s tested for strength, length, fiber size, yield, and contamination. Nineteen-micron wool normally goes into socks, while finer micron fiber becomes silky, stink-avoidant, moisture-repellant, “luxury” items.
Most clothing companies that use U.S.-sourced wool know only that their wool comes from western sheep; not which ranch it came from. The wool arrives in roughly 400-pound bales on flatbed trucks at the South Carolina cleaning and processing plant, Chargeurs. It’s blended with other wool to certain specifications—all except for Duckworth’s, which stays segregated from farm to factory, resulting in a line of products that can be traced right back to back to the Helle’s Montana Ranch.
“The most American tradition”
The ranch to garment process is inspiring, earthy, history-rich—and one consumers should embrace. It supports a uniquely American economy steeped in tradition, bootstrap self-sufficiency, stewardship of the land, and hard-working values. “Some of these ranches have four-, five-, six generations of experience,” says Evan Helle.
“Made in America” is a growing trend as more Americans become conscious of where their products come from and want to support U.S. business. A recent Outdoor Industry Association Consumer Vue study shows that 30 percent of U.S. outdoor consumers are willing to pay more for products made in America. But Prager says, “When I see someone advertising the Made in America label, yet using materials that aren’t sourced here, I feel cheated.”
It’s not like those companies are lying: The Federal Trade Commission rules offer some wiggle room on the Made in America claim. Products labeled “Made in America” must be made with “all or virtually all” U.S.-sourced materials, rather than all U.S.-sourced ones, because the FTC recognizes how difficult the “all” can be.
“The FTC wants to support companies making their products here,” says the OIA’s policy adviser Andrew Pappas, but they want them to be honest. The rule stipulates that all essential materials be sourced in the U.S., which can be difficult. Pappas cites an example in which the FTC asked a watchmaker to revise its Made in America claim because the movement—the essential item in the product—was made in Switzerland. Conversely, a basketball hoop-maker can label its product Made in America even though the netting—apparently non-essential—was made overseas.
Prager thinks that the best way to support the American economy is to buy products not only made in America but with all American materials.
But companies who don’t source their wool in the U.S. are far from evil. They’re just loyal. Keith Anderson, VP of marketing at Ibex says, “American wool, for us, is definitely not off the table. It’s a great industry, one we want to support, should it fit into our product collection.”
Both Ibex and Smartwool have also built trusted, longstanding relationships with wool growers in New Zealand. "We are fully in favor of the development of an American Merino supply chain," says Smartwool’s Cuffe. "We just haven't found a scenario that meets all of our requirements—great partnership, a premium quality fiber grown to our specifications, in a quantity that we need, at a price we and consumers can afford."
Consumers, however, have a choice. They can buy a garment made with wool from sheep they’ll never see, or one with wool from sheep winding their way across Wyoming.
In choosing the latter, they’ll support second-, third-, and fourth-generation American sheep ranching families, who are trying hard to stay afloat. In the families mentioned here, ranchers’ kids are taking up the tradition. And that’s a good thing.
Child’s sons are assuming more and more responsibility as Child gets a little “older and more creaky.”
Fred Roberts’ son, Kyle, called him one day and said, “Maybe I’ll come up there and see you.” That was three years ago.
And Helle’s kids are so committed to ranching that they’re majoring in range science and economics in college. “You bet I’m going to carry on my family’s ranch,” says Evan Helle.
“The rancher provides a service to the citizen. We keep open range—the lands where sheep graze—healthy and sustainable, while providing food and fiber to people. If you ask me, it’s the most American tradition.”
Tracy Ross grew up around ranching families in southern Idaho. After reporting this story, she’s considering moving back.
Stay tuned for the next part of Ross’s wool immersion as she follows the bales of greasy wool on Roberts’ flatbed to the South Carolina processing plant, Chargeurs, and then on to the North Carolina factory where Farm to Feet socks are built.
This story was made possible in partnership with Farm to Feet and the American Wool Council, who provided travel expenses for our writer.