A Wild Sheep Chase

For Bozeman-based Duckworth, no mountain is too
high to climb for superior fiber.

BY KIT MILLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN ARMSTRONG

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When sheep farmer Evan Helle tells us that “wool is kind of like fine wine” we can’t help but pause, skeptically. After all, second only perhaps to a red, red rose, comparing something you’re passionate about to fine wine is about as heavy-handed as you can get. The statement is quite literal, however, and it turns out Helle’s herds are both as scientifically tinkered with and lovingly cultured as your favorite Chateauneuf du Pape. Apparently, raising sheep and developing a signature crimp is a very similar combination of genetics, nurturing and terroir. And in the case of Helle and his father John, whose herds now support Bozeman, Montana’s new sheep-to-shelf outfitters Duckworth, the result is a delicate, deeply insulating wool that is, yes, fine enough to be knit into the lightweight, 100% merino baselayer garments for which the company is best known.

The Helle family has been raising sheep in Southwest Montana for four generations, even developing their own sub-breed, Helle Rambouillet (ram-boo-let), merino sheep known for elastic, whisper-thin fibers not normally seen in domestic wool. In Montana’s cold climate and high elevation, they grow a unique crimp that’s particularly great for performance clothing, but it isn’t nearly as passive as that may seem. The annual process sees the family—and Peruvian shepherds they hire to assist— traipsing sheep throughout the landscape. In March, the sheep lamb (give birth) on the ranch, which requires the attention of the entire Helle family. Once the lambs are at least two months old, the Helles assemble their 10,000-deep herd and in late spring, begin the 4,500 vertical mile trip to high mountain pastures in the Gravelly Mountains.

“It’s hard work,” admits Evan Helle, “but once you get into a rhythm, you do what the sheep do.” What the sheep do is pretty fun, is it turns out, and for an outdoor adventuring clan like the Helles, there’s no better way to spend a day: waking up at first light, followed by a slow graze down the hill to drinkable fresh water, a midday siesta and then another slow graze back uphill before nightfall.

In the fall, the herd returns to the ranch, where they winter over. They’re shorn in the spring, then begin the process again. The cyclical, almost circadian, rhythm is not lost on the Helles. After shearing, the wool is sent to textile mills in the Carolinas where it’s processed, spun, woven and sewn. Then, it’s back to Duckworth HQ in Bozeman. “It’s so rewarding to see people enjoying a product we spend so much time and energy making,” says Evan, “It’s something we never got to enjoy before, when we just sold wool.”

We’ll gladly drink to that.