Prêt-è-Mouton: Imperial Stock Ranch
On the phone, Jeanne Carver is a torrent of energy and words—and breathless, having just run in from ministering to the sweet-faced Columbia sheep she and her husband, Dan, raise at Imperial Stock Ranch (ISR) in Oregon’s high desert.
“My chores were really delayed,” she says. “The animals were like, ‘Where have you been?’”
But before she entertained questions about the Imperial Collection, the luxury clothing line the ranch debuted in the fall of 2014, Carver recapped 140 years of ranch history, making it clear that the provenance of the fiber is as big a story as the striking sweaters, jackets, and dresses that make up the collection itself.
Established during the latter years of the westward movement by homesteader Richard Hinton, a nineteen-year-old kid who staked his claim from a dugout on the banks of a creek in 1871, the 32,000-acre ranch has a storied past. Hinton, a freethinker and agricultural innovator, built an empire on a hardy crossbreed sheep he developed for both tasty meat and fine-grade wool, which would later officially become the Columbia breed.
Over the course of decades, the people changed, but the sheep remained. Dan and Jeanne Carver entered the narrative in the 1980s, acquiring the property to fulfill his dream of ranching in the Oregon desert.
By 1999, however, American wool was in crisis. Though the ranch had sold wool into the commodity wool market for 130 years, the Carvers were dumbfounded to see the market completely dry up.
“We couldn’t sell the wool,” Jeanne Carver explains. “This was a commodity clip of wool, more than a few fleeces from a backyard flock.”
To save their flock, the Carvers began to think of wool not as a commodity but as a resource to which they could add value. Not a knitter herself, Jeanne Carver found herself having to learn the technical aspects of transforming fleece into finished product, starting with yarn for the handknitting market (the now venerated Imperial Yarn line) and eventually moving into garments created by local artisans.
She kept pushing, looking for ways to insinuate American fiber into the marketplace. Partnering with Portland-based sustainable designer Anna Cohen, the ranch released a capsule clothing collection at Portland Fashion Week in 2009. The garments, including a luxurious sweater coat, cropped blazer, and a mutton-sleeved pullover, were part of a feasibility study for a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant, proving a production chain from American sheep to boutique. Producing those garments on any kind of scale, however, required winning that grant.
“I knew nothing about anything,” Jeanne Carver says. “It was all seat-of-the-pants. If I could move wool, then the sheep would remain, and I love the sheep.”
By 2012, Imperial Stock Ranch was moving enough yarn and finished product to gain a reputation as one of the nation’s go-to resources for domestic yarn. That summer, Jeanne Carver answered the phone, thinking a yarn shop was calling, but it was actually a representative from Ralph Lauren in New York. After much back and forth, secrecy, and an intense amount of work, the Carvers watched their yarn make an international debut as American athletes paraded into the Olympic Stadium wearing Ralph Lauren grown-and-made-in-America sweaters during the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
While working on the Olympic project, Jeanne Carver also learned that ISR had indeed been granted a $300,000 USDA value-added producer grant to take its raw fleece to the product stage. Not only would she be clothing Olympic athletes, she would also be translating her take-the-sheep-by-the-tail enterprise into the world of luxury women’s apparel.
Designed by Anna Cohen, the Imperial Collection that started it all is a tightly focused assemblage of fourteen garments. The timeless aesthetic makes her designs relevant, even three years beyond the unveiling of the collection. Completely modern and urban but with a nod to western style, the pieces include knits, woven fabrics, and shearling. With the exception of some imported silk fabric, everything was sourced and manufactured stateside.
Cohen, who not only conceived the collection but also directed the photography and styling, was challenged to design goods that would appeal to a high-end consumer and stay true to the blue-sky-and-rabbitbrush ethos of the ranch. “Jeanne’s influence is there,” she says. “She loves western elements, but these are pieces that can be worn on the streets in New York City.”
Cohen, too, was inspired by the fact that rather than starting the design process from existing fabric, she was starting from yarn, making her not just a fashion designer but also a knitwear and textile designer, whose finished product was intrinsically tied to natural processes and a specific place.
“From my perspective, the intention is to help people connect to the source of where their products come from as well as the concept of the source,” she explains. “And to inspire them to go back to the source of their own spirit and connect to life and make intentional choices.”
As part of the Imperial Collection initiative, ISR has also released a knitting pattern based on the Frances Sweater, a heavily cabled pullover featured as part of the collection. In addition, ISR produced the stunning colorwork Arrowhead and the cocoonlike Rimrock cardigans—designs by Cohen for the craft market—for the retail customer.
Items from the Imperial Collection aren’t cheap. Sold at high-end women’s boutiques such as Mercantile Portland, sweaters can run anywhere from $400 to $800, with prices topping out at about $1,800 for the shearling coat. Jeanne Carver reports that the sweaters, especially the chunky Holmes sweater coat, have sold briskly.
Today, the Imperial Stock Ranch, which once sold its beautiful fiber into the commodity market, now sells yarn to more and more American designers and companies, including an almost sell-out collaboration with the sustainable lifestyle retailer, Zady. Crafters are snapping up ISR’s yarns for sweaters and blankets, and the ranch has launched a home textile line of knit and woven blankets, throws, and pillows. And chefs are creating hearty meals from ISR’s lamb.
Having produced an entire fashion collection, Jeanne Carver now has a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges involved in building a business in a fickle industry. Still, she sees the Imperial Collection as proof that the American textile industry can resuscitate itself if more consumers insist not just on “made in the USA” but also grown in the USA. “The consumer has the power to effect change,” she says. “It takes the consumer making buying choices to drive companies to invest in jobs in America and to grow this sector again. The narrative sounds good, but it’s another thing to walk it. The American consumer holds the power.”
Leslie Petrovski is a writer and knitter in northern Colorado. She blogs at LesliePetrovski.com
Visit www.imperialstockranch.com for more on ISR’s yarn and apparel.
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