March 31, 2021 4 min read
For a moment, imagine the year is 1869. Montana - still a remote territory on the edge of the American frontier - is some 20 years out from statehood.
In the Beaverhead Valley, named after a mass of earth resembling a beaver’s head (a moniker delivered by none other than The Lewis and Clark Expedition), our story was taking root. As if by fate, 152 years ago the territory’s first domesticated sheep and their guardians settled into a new home on Carter Creek; the very same Carter Creek encompassed by Duckworth’s fourth-generation sheep ranch.
A band of our Merino Sheep graze the prairie under impending spring storm clouds.
Subsequently our ranch, stewarded by our co-founder and head rancher John Helle and his family, bears a legacy of sheep husbandry other Merino Wool apparel companies - domestic or abroad - are simply unable to match. From the generations of expertise only a tight-knit family can transfer, to the pristine alpine environment our free-ranging sheep enjoy and grow their wool in, Duckworth boasts a degree of heritage impossible to replicate - one of many reasons our growing and devoted customer base expects only the highest standards of complementary quality and craftsmanship.
And it’s only a stone’s throw from Carter Creek, from the origins of sheep ranching in our great state, that our Sheep to Shelf process undergoes a genesis all its own: shearing.
The sorting of some freshly clipped wool fleece, readying it for our Optical Fiber Diameter Analyzer: the most cutting-edge technology available.
John Helle heads out with bales of hay to feed the freshly shorn sheep.
Each spring, dedicated shepherds and dogs lead our sheep from mountainside dwellings into low-lying pastures adjacent to the Helle home, where they will be shorn of their thick and lofty Merino Wool fleece: the fibers that protected the sheep from immeasurable high-desert heat in the summer and punishing sub-zero snowstorms all winter long.
It’s during this critical moment in the Duckworth story the state’s very best shearers descend upon our ranch, rolling up their sleeves to gently and methodically clip wool from thousands of sheep. Much like one might peel an orange, the shearers have been trained across decades to shear the fleece in a single, unbroken mass. Ensuring the sheep are comfortable the entire time is also paramount, as they can sense the energy of their respective shearers and react in turn - their union is yet another piece of the perfected and time-honored methodology required by our premium Montana-grown Merino Wool apparel.
A veteran shearer passes on his knowledge to a younger member of our team, further strengthening the bonds of history and heritage.
A group of Montana Merino sheep await their turn for an annual "haircut."
Using an Optical Fiber Diameter Analyzer, the most cutting-edge technology available within the industry, we are able to identify the quality of each fleece to historically unprecedented degrees. This stage not only informs the end-use of each fleece (think: courser fibers for our proprietary WoolCloud batting insulation, and finer fibers for direct-to-skin products like our 100% Merino Wool Maverick and Maverick Peak lines), but also influences breeding decisions to maintain a legacy built upon the World’s Finest Merino Wool fleece.
Ensuring the sheep are comfortable is of the utmost importance. When shorn, sheep will become practically motionless, enjoying the "massage" delivered by the vibrating clippers. Plus, they don't mind getting some hard-to-reach itches finally attended to!
Tools of the trade.
The sheep are then released back into the prairie, where they will graze and begin to grow a fresh fleece, a testament to the sustainable benefits of working with wool. Inside, an atmosphere of elbow grease, history, and camaraderie reverberate off the barn walls, fostering a sense of dedication and purpose one can practically sense when slipping into a Duckworth garment.
With sweat still on brow, cold beers and a toast or two commemorate the shearing; a job well-done needs little else for recognition out here in Montana.
Sheep in the barn, soon to be clipped of fleece.
Celebration, however, is in order. What better place to do so than the local ski hill, a low-key classic free from the trappings of the hyper-commercial ski resort. An experience equally frozen in time - we’re talking one chairlift, two seats per chair. Of course, Duckworth fans will know the brand was born via conversations had on that same chairlift, a fresher piece of legacy we cherish just as much as our Carter Creek origins.
A shearer's tool bag, often equipped with backup blades, sharpeners, and clocks for keeping pace.
A freshly shorn fleece thrown onto a sorting table, a beautiful dance of sorts.
It’s a time for the Duckworth family - the Helles, the team, friends - to enjoy fresh powder and bond over the significance of what we are trying to achieve: A sustainable, mindful, 100% American-made apparel business designed with the highest quality performance in mind. And the folks behind this effort aren’t just faces in the crowd nor cogs in the machine. No, the same cohort is present at every stage of the brand’s supply chain, ensuring the humble origins of our apparel are never taken for granted and not a single corner is cut. Other brands aspire to such camaraderie and familiarity at the core of all they do.
The chairlift at our local ski hill, where the brand was conceptualized nearly a decade ago.
With the closing of the lifts and the clinking of pints at the mountain’s base, Shear N’ Shred is achieved, and the rich cycle of our process starts over again at square one. Happy hearts and sore legs arrive back at the ranch, ready to deliver Merino Wool excellence for yet another year.
John Helle smiles: The job has been done, and well.