This is a guest post shared with us by Jainee Dial of Wylder Goods. Jainee recently spent time at Helle Ranch in Montana for “Shear ’N Shred,” an annual event hosted by Duckworth. Today, Duckworth is the world’s only source-verified, single-origin, Merino wool apparel company.
The Helle Ranch sits in the moody high-altitude mountains of Southwestern Montana. This is likely the area of the state where the term “Big Sky Country” was coined. The vast expanse of peaks, valleys, and a pastoral patchwork of land stretches for miles on end. Just a short 2 hour drive from the hip outdoor enclave of Bozeman, the tiny town of Dillon plays host to “Shear ’N Shred,” an annual gathering where business owners, outdoor industry folks, and people from diverse backgrounds who know the Helle family converge. The highlight? An intimate day of witnessing the shearing of the sheep whose wool is the staple of the Duckworth clothing line. The flock of 10,000 Merino roam free-range along the ridge lines and creek beds, part of an integral relationship with a host of family members and itinerant workers who gather to harvest their thick, valuable coats.
I’m here because I’m a curious investigator of the life cycle of products, fascinated by the story behind this brand, and I want to understand the process of taking wool from sheep to shelf.
As I entered the barn where the flock was being housed, the shearers conversed in a back room sipping coffee as the Irish rock band Flogging Molly played overhead. Truth be told, I expected classic country music and a rag tag cast of characters or redneck types. As with most assumptions, I was proven completely wrong and deluded. Most of these men have decent paying jobs and see this work as a hobby — and a respectable one. Eric told me he was a contractor by trade and had a few kids and a wife in a nearby town but that he’d been shearing since he was a teenager and felt it was a great way to spend time contributing to his local community.
The father/son duo of Mike and Chris Shulz made their way to the end of the shearing line. At first glance, I could tell they were related; both have a stalky build and thick, muscular arms. It’s apparent they take pride in their work and judging by their body language, it appeared they have a damn good time doing it.
Suddenly someone turned up the volume and they glanced at each other and smiled. The show was about to begin. They strapped a leather belt around their torsos which assists in maintaining balance. Then in a crescendo of sound, the buzz of the razors rose and the barn came alive.
To watch a shearer is to witness a dance of arms and legs and muscles and wool entangled in movement that has a primal, arabesque quality. There’s a gracefulness in the way they move, straddling the sheep while manipulating the neck and legs and applying pressure on muscle groups for maximum stretch between limbs.
Lanolin is the natural wax secreted by wool bearing animals and it greased the floors. The men wore special moccasins with a non-slip coating for solid footing. But sometimes (very rarely) they would fall out of step. Unfazed, they’d revert back to the dance as the music played on. With each passing minute, the shearers peeled back layer upon layer of wool with quick, dipping movements that reminded me of an ice cream scooper plunging into a box of vanilla bean, the top layer curling over like a cresting wave.
Mike made eye contact with me and casually asked if I wanted to try it out. Of course I did! My only fear was accidentally cutting the sheep in some botched barber shop nightmare scenario. I paused, considering the stakes and then nodded I was ready. He pulled me up onto the platform and simply told me to trust myself. For some reason, a dose of nostalgia sent me back through time and I was suddenly reminded of the day I got my first tattoo. The sound of the tattoo gun has a similar buzzing frequency and tone. Snapping back into the present predicament in front of me, I straddled the sheep and nervously proceeded as instructed.
What I didn’t expect was that I’d have to use sheer brute strength to both manipulate the animal beneath me, and maintain a steady grasp on the the intense vibration of the razor, which felt like it could easily pull my arm out of its socket. The sheep and I made eye contact and I smiled, trying to telepathically communicate with her.
“Yes, I’m an idiot with no business attempting to give you a haircut you probably don’t want, but my intentions are good.”
She was docile, but alert and attentive. He told me these are yearlings — this was their first experience being sheared. I drew in a sharp breath and made my first pass. My arm felt like jelly and the vibration was almost unbearable. I finished my attempt at gracefully manipulating the razor through the thick coat of white fuzz and Mike commended me on my work.
I gave it a couple more passes and then handed back the razor, slightly embarrassed at my ineptitude. I thanked him for his help and returned to the floor with the rest of the onlookers. Without a beat, he moved back into his rhythm, correcting the jagged lines of my pitiful attempt. I suddenly understood why most of the men on this line take such pride in shearing. This work requires both muscular fortitude and an intelligence with their movement in order to bring the least harm and the highest yield.
They are masters of their craft.
I couldn’t resist reaching into the bins to feel the texture; the wool was unbelievably soft and versatile. Evan Helle, the manager of the current shearing operation here and a 4th generation rancher, told me about his family’s prized Merino stock. He explained one of the major benefits of merino wool is its use in keeping you warm in winter, but often overlooked is the fact that wool actually keeps you cool in summer too. Wool as a summer fabric is not new; nomadic desert-dwelling cultures have worn it for centuries. It also prevents that all-too-familiar funk that comes with wearing the same shirt for days at a time while in the backcountry. The natural profile of merino wool denies the odor causing bacteria ammonia a moist environment to thrive in. Because wool is constantly drawing the moisture up and away from your body, it prevents the sweat molecule from forming and bonding to the surface of your clothing. These facts stack up, and it seemed obvious after being educated on the subject that wool is likely the world’s most sustainable fiber.
As I left the barn to go view the flock up in the mountains above the ranch, I was struck by the beauty of the monotonous thunderheads rolling in and a feeling in my gut that reminded me why I came here in the first place. This raw, wild landscape plays host to a process that most of us are dreadfully unaware of. I had just witnessed what felt like a primal process; the human/animal relationship is incredibly intimate here. So intimate in fact, that it brought up some painful realizations.
We live in a society of convenience and blind consumerism. We have lost our connection to SOURCE, censored from the lives of our things packaged, from plastic-wrapped meat to low quality sweatshop garments mindlessly purchased at Forever 21. I’m embarrassed to admit that throughout my 20’s, I would scour the racks for the cheapest deals. While I did shop quite often at Buffalo Exchange and various thrift shops, I often defaulted to Nordstrom Racks and mall chain stores as my go-to wardrobe outfitters. Back then, I think I actually felt deep satisfaction at getting a haul of garments that were dirt cheap. It was almost like I had won a game; I was delusionally “wealthy” because I had purchased so much for so little.
What I didn’t realize then, and what most Western consumers are just now beginning to understand, is that there are hands and lives and families behind every piece of factory-created clothing and there’s an extractive toll to pay; a true cost to people, the environment, and workers that goes unaccounted for, especially in the toxic global garment industry.
So perhaps the most important thing that Duckworth does and has done since its inception, is tell the story of their process, and invite others in. Unlike most brands, they guarantee total supply-chain responsibility, quality, and transparency from beginning to end which is a powerful first step in confronting the complexities of being a producer of goods at this moment in history.
My experience at the ranch provided me, a consumer — and a person who truly wants to make better choices — with a new context for how and why the ecological story of my clothing matters. I must also acknowledge that paying more for something that will last a lifetime or that was produced in a more sustainable way comes at a higher price. It’s not lost on me that my privilege enables me to pay that higher price, which is in essence, a luxury choice.
The renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken said, “Real change occurs from the bottom up; it occurs person to person, and it almost always occurs in small groups and locales and then bubbles up and aggregates to larger vectors of change.”
I believe that by confronting and exposing my own learning process with a hearty dose of humility and genuine curiosity, the easier it may become for others in my community and peer group to confront as well. Apathy and shame will not bring about actionable change; but tiptoeing into the discomfort of personal accountability and approaching the muckiness of our role as consumers with openness and integrity may create a new story about how powerful our choices and decisions can be, and the impact we’re capable of eliciting.