American Wool from the Great Plains: Brown Sheep Yarn Company

What’s not to love about locally sourced wool, spun and dyed at a family-owned mill, using environmentally friendly methods? Go behind the scenes at Brown Sheep Yarn Company with Amy Palmer, former editor of knitscene. Originally published in Interweave Knits Spring 2015.

As you drive from Colorado to Mitchell, Nebraska, you see the land change—untamed, broken vistas. It is the Great Plains, with a wild beauty and long stretches of highway. In the midst of this territory in far western Nebraska is Brown Sheep Yarn Company’s headquarters, which I visited in October 2014.

The mill is nestled near Scottsbluff National Monument, on prairie lands shadowed by towering cliffs. This land has been in owner Peggy Wells’s family for more than one hundred years—her great-grandfather purchased the acreage in 1910. For half a century, the family farmed the land and raised a small flock of sheep, a legacy that has led to the creation of one of the most recognizable American yarn brands on the market.

Changes in the agricultural markets in the 1970s forced Peggy’s father to find new uses for the land. When Peggy requested an Ashford spinning wheel for Christmas in 1974, she inadvertently set the family on its present course. After watching his daughter at work, her father also took to spinning, and in 1978, he followed that up with a loom for weaving the wool from his flock. A few years later, he purchased his first set of used mill equipment from a defunct mill in Georgia and set up the Brown Sheep offices.

Peggy moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, and worked as a custom fashion designer with a strong investment in natural fibers. In 1998, she and her husband, Robert, moved their family back to Mitchell to take over the running of the mill, expanding their idea of “family” to include the mill employees. Today, about 30 men and women work for the company, some of whom have been “in the family” for more than 20 years.

In 2004, as the machinery her father had purchased was living out the last of its days, Peggy made the decision to purchase new equipment. When the state-of-the-art equipment was introduced, the increased production efficiencies allowed Brown Sheep to expand to the 13 yarn lines that are manufactured at the mill, all worsted spun and all containing fibers sourced from the United States.

Behind the scenes. An on-site yarn shop carries all Brown Sheep’s yarns (left). Peggy, at right, labels skeins (upper right). Balls of yarn await labeling (lower right). All photos by Amy Palmer.

Much of the wool comes from ranches in Colorado and Wyoming. The fiber is scoured and carded at an outside facility before arriving at the Nebraska mill. When I visited, the blender was mixing the fibers for Lamb’s Pride, a blend of 85% wool and 15% mohair. The fibers are then spun, bobbined, coned, plied, and steamed to set the twist.

The newly minted yarn is then sent to the dye vats. Although Peggy loves to be involved in every step of the process, creating the colors is one of her favorites. After dyeing, the yarn moves to a radial dryer, a fast and ecologically friendly method of drying the yarn. Peggy and Robert are highly conscientious about the impact of the mill on the family’s land. Robert, a radiation biologist by education, created a reverse osmosis system to clean up to 90% of the water used in processing the yarn, lowering energy costs and water uses. The finished yarn is sold wholesale to yarn shops around the country and increasingly around the globe.

The focus of Brown Sheep has always been to provide quality yarn, while helping the handknitting industry grow as well. The company has supplied yarn to 4-H groups, encouraging the next generation to take to yarn crafts, and it has been a constant supporter of the burgeoning Scotts Bluff Valley Fiber Arts Fair. At the same time, the company has expanded to working with the apparel industry, including such high-profile companies as Ralph Lauren. Although the company is steeped in tradition, Peggy and her Brown Sheep family constantly look to the future.

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