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.

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