From Sheep to Shelf
A family of ranchers is building a big-time brand.
Sometimes necessity truly is the mother of invention. Just ask third-generation rancher John Helle, who together with his family runs 10,000 Rambouillet merino sheep on a 25,000-acre spread outside Dillon, Montana. John produces some of the finest wool available on the open market by selectively breeding his stock. He’s a pioneer in sheep genetics.
But though John was selling to high-end clothing companies like Maine-based Rambler’s Way, he could never get the price he thought his product was worth.
John’s frustration grew. So in 2014 he took a big risk, in hope of a bigger reward, and co-founded Duckworth, an outdoor clothing company. He now had a place for his high-quality merino wool, and he’d never have to worry about the price again.
Using wool sourced from the Helle Rambouillet ranch and other growers in a Montana cooperative John created, Duckworth apparel is crafted entirely inside U.S. borders. Textile workers in the Carolinas are responsible for spinning the wool into yarn, knitting the yarn into fabric and sewing the fabric into garments that have won praise from outdoor enthusiasts.
John’s son, Evan, says although his family members have always been enterprising, creating a clothing company was outside their comfort zone. They are, after all, ranchers by trade. Sheep they know. But with a textile venture, they needed some help.
That’s where business partner Robert “Bernie” Bernthal stepped in. Bernie is an outdoor apparel veteran who pitched John the idea for an American source-verified wool company while they sat on a ski lift on Montana’s Maverick Mountain. (The Helles are all avid skiers.) Bernie brought in wool expert Graham Stewart to round out the know-how within the new company’s leadership.
Still, there were challenges.
“It turns out there’s nobody in the United States that makes the clothing for you,” says Evan, who works both on the ranch and in the Duckworth offices in Bozeman. “We ended up having to do that ourselves. We quickly turned into a manufacturing company. So the mantra inside the company has really changed from ‘source- verified’ to ‘from sheep to shelf.’”
The company works with more than a dozen factories that process the Helles’ wool. “We say this is a specific yarn that we want, and then when we take the yarn to the next stage, we tell them exactly how we want it knitted based on the fabric we want, and so on. We have complete control over the entire supply chain,” Evan says.
The new company is a true family effort for the Helles. John, who sits
You get to hang out in the mountains all summer, with all the green grass and the cool-running spring creeks and all that good stuff.
on Duckworth’s board, also tends to the ranch’s sheep, while Tom, his brother and partner, farms and runs the cattle that eat the grass the sheep don’t graze, which helps manage the range. And John’s wife, Karen, and Evan’s wife, Sara, both care for the bum, or orphan, lambs.
Evan’s younger brother Weston is in charge of keeping the many sheepherders—who are often in the high mountain pastures with a band of sheep—supplied with anything they, their dogs or their horses need. In a typical weekly supply run, Weston will drop off groceries, propane, dog food and salt for the sheep. And Claire, the youngest Helle, helps with chores.
Another son, Nathan, is the only one who doesn’t work in the family business, but he’s close by, at a construction company in town where he works as a foreman and a diesel mechanic. There is as yet no fifth generation on the ranch, but Evan says “it’s probably not far off.”
In the meantime, he gets a huge kick out of seeing strangers sporting the Duckworth label, which helps make up for the myriad challenges that come with trying to get an ag-related company not just off the ground but into orbit. “One
of the hardest turning points was going from a startup, where you have tons of ideas flying around and everyone’s coming together to build this great thing, to actually running a business,” Evan says.
“At some point you have to stop developing and designing and start making money and growing a business, and all of that notso-exciting stuff. That’s a difficult transition.”
As Duckworth continues to blossom, so do Evan’s long-term goals for the company, including helping to save the beleaguered American textile industry. “The factories are really struggling for business; they’re going bankrupt left and right,” he says. “The factory owners’ kids aren’t interested in running them; there’s not a lot of new young blood in the textile industry in the United States. What I hope to eventually see when I go into those factories are the machines all running because I put a bunch of business into that factory.”
The ranch life, however, clearly remains Evan’s first love. It’s in his blood, as it was for the generations before him. “It takes a lot of open range to run sheep,” he says. “We basically go from Dillon, at 5,000 feet, all the way up to 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.
“That’s the best part, taking those sheep 60 miles up into the remote grazing lands. You get to hang out in the mountains all summer, with all the green grass and the cool-running spring creeks and all that good stuff.”
The Helles’ summer pastures are as high as 10,000 feet above sea level.
Duckworth founders John Helle, Bernie Bernthal, Outi Pulkkinen (sitting, above), Graham Stewart and Evan Helle in front of a truck loaded with bales of merino wool.
Third-generation sheep rancher John Helle (below) created a market for his high-grade wool.
Dogs, dirt bikes and ski gear are all part of life at Helle Rambouillet ranch.
The Duckworth label has garnered praise from outdoor adventurers.